The three high-speed driving tracks at the Diplomatic Security Service’s (DSS’) FASTC allow for DSS special agents to learn, practice, and apply defensive and counterterrorism driving maneuvers, Nov. 13, 2019. State Department photo

By Barbara Gleason

Training approximately 10,000 personnel annually, the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) in Blackstone, Va. is designed to help meet the Department’s growing and unique security training needs for Department and other federal agency personnel under the responsibility of the secretary of state overseas. Defensive driving is an important element of FASTC security training. It teaches members of the Foreign Affairs community to mitigate and respond to various situations ranging from flooded conditions to terrorist attacks.

The safety and top-notch condition of the vehicles used on the driving tracks is key to FASTC training, which is the responsibility of Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF) staff—who prepare, service, and maintain all training vehicles there. Vital members of the VMF team are its disabled military veterans. 

An aerial photo of DSS’ FASTC high-speed driving track in Blackstone, Va. State Department photo
An aerial photo of DSS’ FASTC high-speed driving track in Blackstone, Va. State Department photo

“Disabled veterans are part of the rich and diverse culture we strive for in FASTC and in DSS as a whole,” said Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and DSS Director Carlos Matus. “Diversity of backgrounds and experiences makes us a strong organization and helps employees be productive and innovative, and make better decisions.” 

Ten of the 23 staff members at the facility are disabled veterans and part of the program AbilityOne, a U.S. government program that provides employment opportunities throughout the United States for more than 45,000 people who are blind or have significant disabilities—many of whom are veterans. Skookum Contract Services, a non-profit organization, was chosen by SourceAmerica/AbilityOne for the VMF contract, supporting the Driver Training Unit at FASTC.

From left: Gary Dorton, Jeremiah Lester, Steve Sember, and Kathy Collins are four of ten disabled military veterans that work at the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF) in Blackstone, Va. State Department photo
From left: Gary Dorton, Jeremiah Lester, Steve Sember, and Kathy Collins are four of ten disabled military veterans that work at the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF) in Blackstone, Va. State Department photo

J. Maner Lawton, the unit chief of the Driver Training Unit at FASTC, said that veterans’ past military training makes them valuable members of the FASTC/VMF team because of their commitment to learn, develop, and adapt continuously . They learn how to follow orders, complete tasks, take initiative, and bear responsibility—all in an environment where improvisation is key and individual roles may shift from day to day.

“Veterans tend to be leaders, having had plenty of experience formally overseeing and developing others,” said Lawton. “By their early 20s, many service members are responsible for the training and employing of teams, as well as the well-being of subordinates, and are accountable for millions of dollars in equipment.” 

He added that, in adapting to military life, service members learn early on to think and act with a bias toward improving the organization instead of only themselves.

Gary Dorton, Jeremiah Lester, Kathy Collins, and Steve Sember—four disabled Army veterans who work at FASTC/VMF—bring various motivations, skill sets, and experiences to their jobs each day. Lester and Sember are both mechanics; Collins is a dispatcher/production controller; and Dorton is a materials coordinator at the facility. They spend most of their days in one of the facility’s 14 service bays or other areas designed to provide a full spectrum of vehicle maintenance for the more than 250 FASTC training vehicles.

Lester ensures the training vehicles are safe and fully operational and assists in track cleanup from driving exercises, range support, and disposal of expended vehicles. He also diagnoses, inspects, and replaces engine components. 



“Using my communications repair background in the military, I am called upon for all electronics installations and repair needed for the shop,” said Lester. “My biggest motivators are my ability to provide for my family and a sense of accomplishment with my profession. Having great co-workers helps tremendously.”

As a materials coordinator, Dorton’s job involves ordering and receiving various automotive and industrial parts to support the VMF. He maintains the proper inventory levels to support missions, ensuring that parts are available to the mechanics and providing technical assistance to the site manager. 

 “My military experience has helped me with my day-to-day responsibilities and organizational skills in support of FASTC training needs,” said Dorton.” Working for Skookum at FASTC is great because their values align with mine, and being part of the team helps me work hard in reaching our goals.” 

Off-road driving tracks at DSS’ FASTC, provide DSS special agents with the opportunity to drive over non-paved and rugged terrain, Nov. 13, 2019. State Department photo
Off-road driving tracks at DSS’ FASTC, provide DSS special agents with the opportunity to drive over non-paved and rugged terrain, Nov. 13, 2019. State Department photo

Collins is responsible for opening and closing all work orders and the workflow for all training vehicles. She ensures that all equipment and vehicles are properly serviced and are safe to operate before being issued to any training class. At the end of each training class, she makes sure that all reported service orders are completed before the vehicle is returned to service. 

“I was a production controller in the military for 27 years, and I loved the work,” said Collins. “My work at FASTC allows me to do the same type of work that I enjoyed when I was in the military. I never thought I would ever be able to have this career again.”

Sember ensures that each vehicle is properly inspected and safe to operate—diagnosing, inspecting, and replacing engine components, brakes, and suspension systems. He also helps fabricate special parts and equipment needed for various training scenarios and is responsible for the fuel station operations, utilizing his military experience as a petroleum supply specialist. 

“I enjoy my work because of the comradery I have with my co-workers and the driver training instructors,” said Sember. “Each day is different, and you never know what each day holds in store for you.”

One factor that motivates all team members equally is ensuring that their colleagues and program participants remain safe throughout the training.

“The FASTC driver training instructors put trust in the mechanics and other VMF personnel to ensure the vehicles are in top-notch condition,” said Sember. “Their trust in our abilities says a lot about the standards we hold.”

Barbara Gleason is a public affairs and media relations specialist in the Diplomatic Security Service Public Affairs Office.