By Angela French

The Diplomatic Security Service’s (DSS’s) first female special agent, Patricia “Patti” Morton, was also the first woman to serve as a regional security officer (RSO) overseas. When she was recruited in April 1972 by DSS’s predecessor organization, the Office of Security (SY), Morton had already served as a Foreign Service officer staff secretary and post security officer at several U.S. diplomatic missions overseas.

Morton and other women who took the leap into uncharted territories paved the way for the hundreds of women who serve as RSOs and in other leadership positions at DSS today, including dozens at high-threat posts. 

After brief assignments at the Washington and Boston field offices, Morton served as one of four regional security officers in Saigon, Vietnam, then later as the regional security officer at The Hague in the Netherlands. | State Department photo
After brief assignments at the Washington and Boston field offices, Morton served as one of four regional security officers in Saigon, Vietnam, then later as the regional security officer at The Hague in the Netherlands. | State Department photo

Morton recalled what it was like to serve as the first woman RSO in a video interview with Diplomatic Security Public Affairs in August of 1991. “Within 20 months of coming onboard, I was told by telephone one day that I had been reassigned and would become the very first female RSO in Vietnam, which was of course at war. Anyone who wanted at that time could refuse an assignment to Vietnam and was told it would not go against their career. I however never even considered that option and said, ‘Yes, I will go.’”

When Morton arrived to her post in spring of 1974, she was one of four RSOs in Vietnam. Within three months, she had become the assistant supervisory RSO and acting supervisory RSO in the senior officer’s absence. Her immediate duties included following the daily activities of the main security guard company and attending morning meetings given with the senior military officers in the Tan Son Nhut Airport area. She was also assigned to physically survey all consuls general who were situated throughout Vietnam, and she served as the liaison officer to United States Information Service (USIS), USAID and the political tube group. Morton continued to prove her abilities to her superiors, even though they assured her that they knew she was hired because she was capable of doing the job. Her ability to assist in their investigative program proved invaluable when she was able to help communicate with individuals who had for the past two years refused to speak with her superiors. Morton credits this success to her womanly intuition.  

Patti Morton is presented with a Meritorious Step Increase award by Chief of Mission Hank Cohen in Kinshasa, 1968. Morton received this award for the excellent quality of her work as post security officer, which she took on in addition to her regular duties as secretary to the Administrative Counselor. | Collections of the U.S. Diplomacy Center
Patti Morton is presented with a Meritorious Step Increase award by Chief of Mission Hank Cohen in Kinshasa, 1968. Morton received this award for the excellent quality of her work as post security officer, which she took on in addition to her regular duties as secretary to the Administrative Counselor. | Collections of the U.S. Diplomacy Center

“One of the major areas people considered women would have a problem in would be handling Marine Security Guards [MSGs],” said Morton in her 1991 interview. “But in fact, even before going to Vietnam, several Saigon-bound MSGs told me that they felt they deserved to have the first woman security officer since they were the largest Marine company in the program. This carried forward very nicely, and I felt I had good rapport with Marine Security Guards. …Even the fifty ‘grunts’ (infantry Marines) that we had when I initially went into Saigon made me feel welcome.”

The MSGs were also impressed with Morton’s ability to handle weapons. She would often go out to training fields, such as the Vietnam military shooting site, and would prove her competence.

“I was able to hit things even with the bazookas and the larger weapons that they had not been able to zero in on, in the various times they had gone out shooting.” Morton felt that showcasing these abilities helped earn her respect and created a common ground with the MSGs.

Morton also visited the indoor training grounds where the president of Vietnam’s senior guard attended weapons training. “They were so impressed with my shooting ability that they asked would I please join their Vietnam international competition shooting team. The senior U.S. military people encouraged me to accept that, and I was honored to do so.” Unfortunately, before Morton was able to travel with the shooting team, the Mission fell and Morton was ordered by the medical officer to leave Vietnam. 

Patti Morton speaks during a Women’s Week event at the Department of State, 1982. | Collections of the U.S. Diplomacy Center
Patti Morton speaks during a Women’s Week event at the Department of State, 1982. | Collections of the U.S. Diplomacy Center

Initially, Morton refused to leave her post. “I had all of these duties and everybody else was counting on me to fulfill them, and I wanted to.” Morton eventually asked for a medical appointment to accompany the order of medical leave. “I had the physical examination because I did not want women to forever after have to carry the burden of people saying ‘See, women can’t stand up to an emergency crisis situation.’ I passed the physical with flying colors.”

Morton acknowledged that women had difficulties to overcome, not just in the Office of Security, but throughout the Department. 

“What I hope is that the problems that I and the other women experienced who came early into the Office of Security, that we fought battles which the new agents will not have to fight. That more equal opportunity will be available to them, that the supervisors will see their potential and not only want to use it, but will reach out and help them develop their potential to the fullest, as they often do for the male agents.”

Foreign Service Director General Harry Barnes presents Patti Morton with the Distinguished Alumnus Award bestowed by her alma mater, Centralia College, 1979. | Collections of the U.S. Diplomacy Center
Foreign Service Director General Harry Barnes presents Patti Morton with the Distinguished Alumnus Award bestowed by her alma mater, Centralia College, 1979. | Collections of the U.S. Diplomacy Center

Being the first female security officer is not something Morton focused on. “I am a pilot; I am a mountain climber. I’m many things. I am also a cook; I do a lot of feminine type things such as sew. I design clothing. When I think of being the first woman diplomatic security officer, what I think of most is I hope I have done the best job I can, and that it will be easier for those who follow. I think of those things as opposed to ‘Hey, I was the first.’ I never think anything is due to me because I was the first, other than respect for what I have accomplished and recognition for the job that I actually did.” 

Morton’s experiences and accomplishments have paved the way, not only for women RSOs, but for all women at the Department. Her resilience, confidence and dedicated service proves a strong model that all employees should strive to emulate. 

For more on Patti Morton, visit the U.S. Diplomacy Center’s Facebook page.

Angela French is a public affairs specialist with the Diplomatic Security Service.

Patti Morton visited the Department in April 2016 for the DSS Centennial celebration. She is shown here with former DSS Special Agent Lisa Grice. | State Department photo
Patti Morton visited the Department in April 2016 for the DSS Centennial celebration. She is shown here with former DSS Special Agent Lisa Grice. | State Department photo