I was evacuated from Beirut three times when I worked at the US Embassy in the 1980’s. The first time was the least stressful — once I was in the air. I am afraid of heights and found myself going up sideways very quickly in a marine helicopter which was open in the sides. (How else could they fit in the machine guns?) I had been in Beirut for a few months now so not only was I used to weapons of all kinds, but I was alarmed when the marines suddenly pulled the guns back from the windows. I wrote a quick note to the co pilot “why are they pulling back the guns?!” When he passed back the note it read “Cypriot airspace. Not allowed.” I decided that I liked Cyprus.
Evacuation did not mean a vacation. The next day I reported to the public affairs section at a separate downtown location from the main Embassy. It was a small and happy operation in a very pleasant office environment. It seemed to be a mirror image of our Beirut section as it could have been or perhaps as it was before the car bomb on April 18 destroyed the embassy building and forced the staff into makeshift offices in nearby residential apartments. I arrived three weeks after the explosion so I had no idea what the office looked like before. Both Beirut and Nicosia had about the same number of employees. I had a conterpart in a congenial Assistant Public Affairs Officer who was about my age but with a young family. The Cypriot staff had similar positions to our Lebanese employees. They were efficient professionals who obviously liked their jobs. They smiled all the time and I noticed that their smiles were relaxed unlike our own Lebanese employees and indeed ourselves. We smiled but there was always tension lurking. I envied this office environment but I learned very quickly from the staff members that they had not always been so happy and relaxed; that their smiles as they bustled around the office were due to the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Dan Howard.
I was between bosses in Beirut at the time. My superior, PAO John Reid was nearing the end of his tour when I arrived. He left just as I was getting settled. I remember he was always full of praise for his counterpart Dan. He called Dan “a great guy.” In the eyes of his own staff this was clearly an understatement. By the end of the first day in Nicosia I could see that his staff adored him and that they were right to do so. They called him “Danhoward” in one word with the emphasis on ‘how.’ While making me a cup of tea, a staff member informed me, “we have no easy place to get our lunch in this location and there was no fridge to keep things fresh. But Danhoward built this kitchen and now we can put our lunches here and make a cup of tea.” And again “… the roof used to leak and the walls and carpets were bad, but Danhoward made the landlord mend the roof and redo the walls.” Even in the parking lot where I noticed the shelters – essential to keep the cars from becoming ovens in the Mediterranean sun, I learned that the employees used to compete to get to work early enough to have one of the three shelters. Of course Danhoward had had shelters constructed for everyone. No more rushing to work. No more office tension from the parking competition.
On the more work related front I found out from older colleagues and subsequent evacuations to Cyprus what a sterling officer Dan was. It was unusual I was told to get someone of his experience at a relatively small post like Cyprus. He was there I learned through happenstance. Assigned to a much larger job in Poland in the last days of the communist regime Dan was thrown in jail and declared persona non grata in retaliation for the expulsion of a Polish diplomat in Washington. Incidentally, Dan’s wife Mary told me that the Polish movers (who of course knew why they were leaving) made their sympathies with the United States and the Howards very clear. Despite his credentials, leaving post early meant little choice of assignments. Cyprus was the only post available. And that was how the embassy in Cyprus ended up with a superior Embassy spokesman, cultural counselor and section chief.
During officer training, it was emphasized over and over that the locally hired employees were our colleagues. We were told this so often that my foreign service class and I decided there must have been a recurring culture of treating them badly — somewhere. Very likely the trainers also believed that operations would run better if we thought of our local foreign service employees as colleagues. After visiting Cyprus I concluded that this emphasis was overdone. I enjoyed working with my Lebanese and subsequently French, Abu Dhabi/Dubai and Bahraini and British staff members. But a colleague can do little to make your job more interesting or your work environment livable, give you a long overdue merit award or pay increase. Only an employer can do that. In my first few weeks with John Reid I had, at his request, put away my diplomat clothes and completely cleared the office of the twisted metal, broken equipment and even blood stained files that had been brought over to the new “office” (John’s apartment) after the car bomb. They could not do it themselves. They were all still in shock. I now realized I could and should do more than that. I remembered the words of the union footsoldier about Ulysses S Grant. He said “we felt the boss had arrived.” That was what happened when Dan came to Cyprus. At the end of my evacuation I went back to Beirut and got busy. Thanks, Dan.