Dear Ms. Sonenshine,
Like you, many of us never met Anne Smedinghoff, although we have the pleasure of working with her father Tom. As is so often the case, when a tragedy occurs in a professional colleague’s personal life we have few ways of expressing our support and solidarity. Your post below reminds us that our work, though far away from the world of diplomacy, also touches on why we are secure in the world and who helps create that security.
Our work involves how we are to be more secure online. In this work we have the benefit of Tom Smedinghoff’s legal experience and expertise. Tom’s work with the US State Department and the UN on issues of global identity management complements our more commercial and technical concerns. Tom’s commitment and values enriches and informs our work as it did Anne’s.
Thank you for your reminder to count our blessings. And the chance to add our thanks to yours to the Smedinghoff family.
September is a season of beginnings. Kids start school. Parents head back to work. We tuck away summer memories, and make room for fall events.
But for one family, this September is a season of sadness mingled with pride as they remember a beautiful young diplomat who gave her life protecting ours.
Anne Smedinghoff would be turning 26 on Sept. 18 were it not for a bomb blast that took her life miles from home, in Afghanistan, in April.
Anne was raised in River Forest, Ill., by a joyful family in a close-knit community. Friends and colleagues describe Anne as spunky, smart, energetic, and adventurous. She loved hiking, mountain climbing, and backpacking.
After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in 2009, Anne rode her bike 4,000 miles across America to raise money for cancer research. From her Facebook pages and the stories of friends and loved ones, she clearly loved traveling, meeting new people, and learning about the world.
Like so many young Americans, Anne wanted to serve her country. In 2010, she joined the foreign service – no easy feat. Many young people want to be diplomats; only a few pass the exam, get through the rigorous interview process, and complete the training required for a first-tour assignment overseas. Anne made it.
In August of that year she was sent to Venezuela. Fluent in Spanish, her first posting was at the consular window in Caracas, where she met and greeted citizens, her warm smile providing a welcoming and beckoning presence to those needing a visa to visit the United States.
What I have learned about foreign service officers is that they rarely stay put and are the first to volunteer for harder assignments.
So when Anne heard there was an opening in Afghanistan, she raised her hand. She was assigned to the public diplomacy office in the embassy in Kabul in 2011 – a difficult and dangerous job, but an ideal one for someone who loved being with people, fostering relationships with local youth, engaging with citizens to improve education, and building bridges between Afghanistan and America.
In Afghanistan, Anne had the opportunity to do what she loved most: work with people in a conflict zone. She helped Afghan girls find opportunity through embassy youth empowerment projects with Afghan schools and set up media interviews with Afghan press for visiting U.S. officials. She learned the art of public diplomacy – an often underappreciated diplomatic skill to connect with foreigners on a human level. She was the perfect public diplomat, ready to move beyond the embassy walls to mingle with locals, to create trust and individual relationships by funding local projects, to explain U.S. customs and share American stories, and to develop an atmosphere of goodwill abroad to enhance the peace and security at home.
In March 2012, Anne got the chance of a lifetime. The new U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, was going to Kabul. She was able to prepare his visit, coordinate the schedule, and meet her new boss as a member of the host delegation. Kerry later recalled Anne’s energy, enthusiasm, and warmth.
Just weeks after meeting Kerry, Anne traveled to Zabul province to deliver books to a school in the town of Qalot. As the convoy of American soldiers and civilians arrived, a suicide bomber approached. Witnesses describe a horrific blast, the shattering of glass and debris, and the cries for help.
Anne was among those killed outside the school, along with four other Americans – three soldiers and a civilian. Her body was flown to Dover Air Force Base. Draped in the U.S. flag, her casket was returned home to St. Luke’s Church in Forest Oak, Ill., where grieving family members, friends, and colleagues honored her.
Although we never met, I supervised all the public diplomacy officers around the world, of which Anne was one. Hence, when it came to her memorial service at the State Department, I was among those who gave the remarks.
We hear about casualties of war – about the injured and the dead – counted in the hundreds, even the thousands. These are staggering statistics. But behind these numbers are individual – often young lives, lost too soon in the line of duty.
This month, as we go about our busy lives, let’s pause for a moment on Wednesday. Let us count our blessings and remind ourselves why we are secure in the world and who helps create that security. And let us say thank you.