Remarks at Holiday Reception for Families With Members in Unaccompanied Tours

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
December 17, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much. Well, Happy Holidays to all. Happy Hanukkah, second day of Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. And we are really delighted to welcome everybody here. Hi kids, how are you? How are you doing? You look fabulous. I – thank you. I do not often get to talk to as distinguished a group as you. You look absolutely great, and you’re all so well behaved. I hope you’re going to come up here afterwards. Will you? And we’ll do a photograph. Okay, that’s a deal.

Let me thank Pat Kennedy very, very much for his extraordinary leadership here at the State Department. I will tell you, he’s the Under Secretary for Management and he’s the guy we turn to for our daily updates on security, on what’s happening in the world, how our embassies are faring. He is always one step ahead of the curve and he does a tremendous job of making sure that our folks out in the field have what they need, are safe, and if there’s a level of threat or something we need to respond to, Pat is at the first line of helping us to respond.

I gather we have some members of the Diplomatic Corps here. I want to welcome those Excellencies who are here. And I particularly welcome our special guests who have already been introduced, the awesome Ruth Riley and Dikembe Mutombo. Thank you both again very, very much for being here. We appreciate it. Thank you. (Applause.)

And most important, I really am pleased to be able to say hello to the families of our Foreign Service Officers and other U.S. personnel who are on duty overseas during the holiday season. This is your reception, and it is a wonderful event here at the State Department and we’re happy to see so many kids who are here to share in it.

I hope everybody has thus far had a really good time, and I hope you’ll have a good time for the duration. I see some heads nodding. That’s okay.

With 9/11, the State Department, like many of our departments in the United States Government, had to change the way we do business. Back then, there were about 200 unaccompanied or partly accompanied Foreign Service positions. Today there are 900 – an increase of 350 percent. And it obviously is a sad commentary on the challenges that we face in the world beyond our control, where countries are in turmoil, places are in transition. And we have responded, I think, with great sense of mission, I know with a great sense of pride in the work that we do, where we are on the ground helping to carry our values, helping to protect our interests, and frankly, helping to do things in many places in many ways that lots of other countries don’t even attempt, helping to help a lot of other people, whether it’s Ebola or AIDS or the challenge of human trafficking, narcotics, terrorism. I don’t think there’s a country on the face of the planet that puts as much on the line, puts its people out there in an effort to try to make peace, to create stability, to help people to be able to help themselves. And that’s who we are as Americans.

But it also means that a Foreign Service Officer or a civil servant or a contractor or somebody in the family of the State Department at some point in their lives as a career is going to be assigned now to a post for a year or more where they’re going to be unaccompanied, where you have a difficult assignment. And so I want to emphasize that as we gather here for what is a celebration, a festive time, we do so mindful that in a lot of vital but troubled places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Yemen, South Sudan, Pakistan, where yesterday’s news was just horrendous, we have people who are working to carry the torch for America and for universal values that go with the presence of these committed public servants. And the jobs that our FSOs and their colleagues do in all of these critical places, the problems that they address or try to find answers for, really matter, makes a difference. The number of letters we get, the number of stories we hear personally when I travel, walk into an embassy, hear what people are doing – it’s an extraordinary statement about commitment and service, service to nation – but not just service to nation; service to a set of values that are bigger than any single one of us individually. And that’s what makes it so valuable, and frankly, makes it so important.

But I know – and I know this personally – it is never easy when you are separated by thousands of miles and the office and the home are, in a sense, divided, and employee from family, and it’s complicated. And I know how complicated it is. Obviously, this holiday season, a lot of you are yearning for the idea of being together with your loved ones, and we understand that. There are going to be empty seats at a dinner table, which is hard to deal with. There are fewer hands to decorate a tree or more packages that get lugged to the post office instead of being handed over personally. We understand every aspect of what it means to be here, part of this family, this particular family within the family.

And I know sometimes there’s tension, anxious moments, even tears. Skype has a lot of benefits, but hugging ain’t one of them. So I’ll just share with you, 46 years ago – my staff tells me it was 46 years ago – it was 1968, that I remember – 1968, Christmas, I was in a river in Vietnam up in – near the Co Chien River, for anybody who knows what that means. And I was on a patrol boat. We were out there alone at night. The tracers were flying in the sky, the flares were dropping, sounds of eruptions of machine gun fire and other things here and there, and it was Christmas Eve. And there was supposed to be a truce, but the truce was broken. And I remember thinking how absurd that was, but it was life. And I took a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, went up and sat on the top of the roof of the boat, and just sat there. And frankly, I had visions of, really, sugar plums, chestnuts, New England in the snow. But what I learned was that the family of people around you make up for a lot. And I also learned that nothing ever makes up for the meaning of the quality of that service, of being able to be there for your country and make a difference.

You are all doing that, every single one of you. So I want to just say to you that that’s why we here at the State Department call ourselves a family, because we look out for one another and we care for each person. We know the world is dangerous. Some of our people will always be at risk. It’s the nature of this business. But every single one of you ought to be so proud – I know you are – of the contribution that your loved one is making and that you, together with them, are also making.

So today’s reception doesn’t do everything we’d like to do to make up for the difference. But I want you to know, Pat Kennedy and I and the President wants you to know – I came just now from a meeting over at the White House – the President is so proud of you and so proud of all that you do. The American people are so proud of you. And I just hope you come away from this evening and go into these next days with a full understanding of just how grateful everybody is for the quality of your service. I thank our corporate partners tonight for their contributions to making this evening possible. And finally, I just wish every single one of you the best holiday you can possibly have, and I know you are yearning for the day of that welcome back, like Al Gross got today. It’ll happen. God bless. Thank you. (Applause.)