By Paul Gilmer
The history of A-100 classes dates back to June 7, 1924, when President Coolidge issued Executive Order 4022 establishing a Foreign Service school for the purpose of training newly hired Foreign Service officers (FSOs). While A-100 has always been mandatory training for FSOs, many classmates often maintain contact throughout their careers, sharing their lives and serving in countries together. For four members of the 31st A-100 class—Paul Gilmer, Jim Steele, John Bradshaw and Stuart Symington—this May marks a third of a century since they took the Foreign Service officer’s oath. Thirty-three years, countless countries and generations of family later, these four classmates credit their training and colleagues for helping them find purpose in the Foreign Service as their careers progressed throughout the years.
Paul Gilmer, currently a senior inspector in the Office of the Inspector General, began his career in a challenging political climate. “The day I joined, President Reagan declared economic sanctions on Libya and the Iran-Contra affair was in full swing. Soon after, I headed to Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega was president and the Sandinistas were in power,” said Gilmer. “My goal has always been to strengthen management platforms and support the staff and their families who did the work of American diplomacy.” Years later when Gilmer was posted to Nicaragua for a second time, he took two election monitoring trips to remote areas with A-100 classmate Francisco Gonzalez, who was also assigned to Embassy Managua at the time.
Gilmer’s career later took him to Kazakhstan, where he assisted in moving the U.S. embassy 800 miles from Almaty to Astana. He also served in Turkey, the Netherlands, South Korea, Hungary, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates. In Abu Dhabi, Gilmer’s last overseas post, he partnered with Native American companies to support hundreds of military and law enforcement personnel. However, it was during a domestic assignment, after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, where Gilmer claims he took on his most challenging and rewarding role.
“I was able to help expand the Department’s Crisis Management training program from 14 to 100 overseas exercises a year to help all employees stationed abroad to navigate crisis situations and learn how to stay safe no matter where in the world they found themselves,” he said.
This worldwide program drastically expanded from Gilmer and one contractor, to two Foreign Service employees and eight contractors in just a few months, so the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) could increase crisis management exercises and provide training to embassies and consulates every two years.
Jim Steele, who currently works part time as a re-employed annuitant for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs supporting U.S. participation in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), says his career was especially exciting because of his work with multilateral organizations. Like most members of the class, Steele’s first job after A-100 was in consular work.
“I was firmly entrenched in the bilateral world, at least until I went to Bangkok as trade officer in 1991,” said Steele. “On arrival I discovered my portfolio included APEC, already on its way to becoming our premier forum for economic and development cooperation around the Pacific rim. Thailand hosted APEC’s meetings in 1992 and U.S. participation was large and high level. I was hooked by the practical solutions to trade and investment issues around which members reached consensus,” said Steele.
In addition to senior officials and ministerial meetings, leaders of APEC’s 21 member economies now meet at the end of the year, a practice the United States initiated in 1993. APEC is important to the United States; its economies today account for 60 percent of global GDP and buy more than 60 percent of U.S. exports of goods. “I’ve contributed to our work in APEC several times and in several capacities over the years and witnessed significant advances in free and open trade and investment in the region and in building capacity for sustainable development among other members. This has truly made my work in supporting APEC among the most rewarding of my career,” said Steele. Throughout his career, Steele also served in Kingston, Canada; Vientiane, Laos; Ottawa, Canada; and Paris, along with several domestic assignments.
John Bradshaw, who currently serves as the executive director of the Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired (DACOR) Bacon House, spent 14 years as an FSO, serving overseas in Maracaibo, Venezuela; São Paulo, Brazil; and Rangoon, Burma. He left the Foreign Service in 2000 to work as a Senate staff member and spent a number of years running human rights and national security nongovernmental organizations. Bradshaw has now returned to the Foreign Service community as executive director of DACOR Bacon House.
“I had some fascinating and meaningful jobs after I left the Foreign Service, but I never encountered the same kind of rich camaraderie I experienced at foreign posts,” said Bradshaw. “DACOR comes close to replicating that and is one place where FSO war stories are not only accepted but encouraged.”
Bradshaw is now focused on growing DACOR’s current membership of 1,600 and helping to build the preservation fund for the beautiful and historic Bacon House. DACOR holds periodic receptions for new A-100 classes and Bradshaw is able to observe the passing on of wisdom from older generations of FSOs to the newly minted officers.
The 31st A-100 class forged more than just meaningful and strong careers, it also helped establish strong families. Classmate Stuart Symington, who currently serves as the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, reflected on how much the three generations of his family owe to the Foreign Service.
“On January 6, this year, almost 33 years to the day after we started our A-100 class, my grandson Liam was born to our daughter Janey and her husband Jessen,” he said. “The marriage was made in St. Louis, but was made possible a decade before, when my wife Susan and friend Linda Garvelink, whose husband Bill was then the ambassador to the Congo, sat together at a Rwandan lodge on Lake Kivu and decided to introduce Linda’s nephew, Jessen, to our daughter Janey. The rest is history.”
In 1986, before Symington’s family went to Honduras for their first tour, Symington’s wife Susan brought their son Stuart with her, in utero, to class events and later to Spanish language classes in a classroom at the former FSI building in Rosslyn, Va. Twenty-five years later, Stuart, now a fluent Spanish speaker, returned to that same building and space which has been converted into a start-up hub that works for a firm that translates Spanish online.
“Stuart and Janey joined us at every post, while Susan and I made our family home in 16 houses on four continents,” said Symington, who has served with his family at a total of nine foreign posts and four assignments in the U.S. “In Djibouti, Stuart raised money to dig wells and then launched a ‘Made in Djibouti’ website to market women’s crafts. Today, he connects colleagues to Foreign Service stories and those who can tell them. Also in Djibouti, Janey traveled with U.S. Navy medical teams, translating for them in French and Spanish. That service convinced her to become a doctor and to combine scientific research with a medical practice.”
For the four A-100 classmates, reflecting on the past 33 years they acknowledge it was crucial in forming both their professional and their personal lives.
“Like Stuart, my wife and I raised a daughter and a son around the world,” reflected Gilmer. “Recently, my husband and I returned from an overseas posting where he was my family member, something we couldn’t even contemplate when we met 10 years ago. Then again, sometimes history repeats itself in unexpected ways, as Daniel Ortega is once again president of Nicaragua.”
In 2006, 20 of the 50 classmates gathered for a reunion to celebrate 20 years of diplomacy. This May, the classmates plan to mark a third of a century and hope that current A-100 students will carve out their own place in history.
Paul Gilmer is a senior inspector in the Office of Inspector General.