Peter Van Buren’s depressing story

Peter Van Buren is a Foreign Service officer who has served for over twenty years as a consular officer overseas, mostly in Asian postings. He is at present serving in what he refers to as an out-of-area assignment for the State Department in Virginia. He has sent us this account of his story:

Remember when Foreign Service officers objected to the threat of serving in Iraq? The Department still works hard to round up enough volunteers, though apparently is ready to cut out willing FSOs because they are afraid they’ll get depressed. No kidding.

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 20 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe in 1995, a Superior Honor Award for assisting an American rape victim in Japan and another award for work in the Tsunami Relief efforts in Thailand.

Unlike many of his colleagues, he has worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience includes multiple field exercises and drills, plus civil-military conferences in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii and Sydney, working closely with allies from the UK, Australia and elsewhere. He was selected to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate as “Ambassador” in a week-long field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions and problems. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill and brings that understanding of Congress to Iraq.

Sounds like the kind of guy you’d want in a PRT in Iraq, right?

Van Buren wants to go, and the assignments office in the Department offered him a senior team leader job in Anbar. The problem is that Van Buren suffers from depression, treated with the drugs you see advertised on TV all the time, and the State Department Medical Office says they can’t support depressed people in Iraq.

Med came to the stunning conclusion in Van Buren’s case that “there are strong safety and health concerns for any in Iraq at this time. In addition, living conditions are most austere.” Better yet, Med first approved Van Buren for Iraq and then pulled the decision back a week later after the Medical Officer in Baghdad, there for only one week, balked.

Despite the denial, Van Buren remains committed to the job. He is appealing the decision internally at State and has even contacted Senator Webb’s office seeking assistance.

“Success in Iraq remains a vital component of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and the PRTs are central to President Obama’s Iraq strategy. The State Department continues to need the very best to serve as [Provisional Reconstruction Team] leaders to ensure that our effort in Iraq remains strong,” said the State Department in a recent cable to the field seeking volunteers for Iraq.

Too bad Med did not get the memo.

Mr. Van Buren tells me that he is not a Power Line reader, but that one of his State Department colleagues is. His colleague told Mr. Van Buren that we might find his story of interest based on the comments that we posted in “A dissent on the Foreign Service.”

UDPATE: ShrinkWrapped comments: “Bureaucracies tend to react to the lowest common denominator. Bureaucratic safety requires the avoidance of risk. This case sounds like a situation where ignorance of the actual risks of relapse have led to a good and honorable public servant being prevented from furthering our national interests. This is the kind of thinking that facilitates rule by the mediocre.”

MORE: Mr. Van Buren expands on this post in the comments.


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