FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: May 11, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Today is May 11, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I’m talking with Laurie Reed, the wife of Bob Reed, who was in the Foreign Service for many years. And she will tell us all about this. So welcome, Laurie.
REED: Thank you.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and all the posts that you had and the ages of your children when you were at these posts?
REED: I am originally from Massachusetts; I was born and raised there. I’m a first-generation Italian, so my family is very close. I was the first person in my family to leave. My parents were somewhat upset that I was going overseas. I had no clue what I was getting into at all. I remember being on the train to our first assignment in Bonn and almost in tears thinking that I was that far away from home.
We had a great career and really enjoyed it. My husband was a Regional Security Officer. We left the U.S. in 1990 and didn’t return until 2013; we did six back-to-back tours. Bob holds the record for the most consecutive tours for Diplomatic Security.
My girls are 31, 32, and 27, and they spent all their lives overseas. We were posted in Germany in 1990. I arrived the day that Germany was unified, which was quite interesting. From Germany, we went to West Africa, then to Haiti, Jamaica, London, Moscow, London, and my husband did two unaccompanied assignments in Iraq, one as a Provincial Reconstruction Team Leader, right at the beginning of the war and then as a Regional Security Officer in Baghdad. Following Baghdad, he was Consul General in Pakistan. It was during that tour that he decided to retire, with my full support. His motorcade was hit by a suicide bomber. He was not in the car, but they were on their way to pick him up. No one was seriously hurt, thank God. He came back at the end of his first year and did a short stint in OSAC— the Overseas Advisory Council, and then he retired in 2013.
Q: So, you were literally all over the world and in some pretty scary places that are difficult for anybody, but especially for his job as the RSO—Regional Security Officer—keeping everybody else safe. So, when you were choosing foreign posts, how did you keep the needs of your kids in mind, and what criteria were you considering for your three daughters?
REED: At the time, when the kids are small, sometimes your postings are limited, depending on if you want to stay overseas. We always chose to stay out because I wanted to be able to stay home with the kids; I had stopped working.
One of the things that was most important when they were little was if there was a Regional Medical Officer at post. I didn’t really feel comfortable going to West Africa with limited medical facilities even though there might have been a nurse there. We were lucky; [Dr.] Cedric Dumont was our Regional Medical Officer, and he was fabulous!
Then, sometimes you didn’t have a choice with postings and schools, and at some posts, the choice of schools was nonexistent. When we were going from Jamaica to London, I flew to London to see the two different schools that we were considering because the girls had been in small schools, and I really wanted something else for them. A post report, as great as it is, can only tell you so much.
Q: So how did you prepare your kids for their new homes moving around so often?
REED: I struggled with this one a little bit because it was difficult for me as well. I lived in the same house until I got married. Moving was very foreign, and to top it off, we were not in the USA. The girls knew that this was Dad’s job, and we were going to live in this place for a little while, and then we will be moving to someplace new. So, it was kind of like an adventure, and they were very adventurous kids. It was easier when the kids were little. As they got older, it was a little bit more difficult. I think one of the most important things for them was they always had a sense of home, which was at my parents’ house in Massachusetts.
Q: And so how did you deal with their changing schools and activities? Did they have certain interests that they carried on from school?
REED: They did. I tried even when they were little to maintain what they were doing from post to post, like ballet and piano. My oldest daughter was a rower when we were in London. When we were moved to Moscow, she couldn’t row, and it was tragic; she was really upset.
But the international schools are so attuned to the students who are all transient. There are many welcoming activities and opportunities for sports and clubs. She couldn’t row, but she could play tennis, soccer, or a multitude of other sports. The students are so inclusive. They know what it’s like to be the new kid. I was always mindful of getting them set up with activities, so they didn’t have a big space of time to linger and perseverate that, “Here we go, we’re moving again.” My oldest daughter moved in her senior year of high school. That was tough, but she’s resilient. They did it, and they probably handled things better than I did.
Q: So, you raised adaptable and resilient kids, which is important in this kind of lifestyle, because not all children are. Perhaps you’ve seen kids who have special needs, learning difficulties, or emotional problems. And from that experience, what’s your advice about helping children with special needs as they move from post to post?
REED: I became involved with this when I contacted the Office of Overseas Schools regarding our lack of a librarian. They were a wonderful resource. The person that we were assigned to-—they’re all over—but in Jamaica was great, because if there were any issues, she made site visits, you could email her and receive a rapid response. They provide a whole host of services. When we arrived in Jamaica, a librarian was nonexistent, and they had a library that was functional but no one to run it. They brought in somebody from DC to train me. It was fantastic. I was always involved in school, and usually on site, so if there were any issues with my kids, I was there.
Q: So, you really highlight how the State Department has changed to adapt and help people going overseas and especially now that we have the internet. I’m seeing them trying to meet the needs of Foreign Service families.
REED: Oh, absolutely. When the kids were in school in Bamako in 1992, we didn’t even have phones, let alone the internet, so the resources were limited. But now, there are quite a lot of services available for people who need them. As for spouses, it was hard for me as a trailing spouse trying to organize when you first arrive at post, learning where you are and getting set up and groceries, doctors, dentist, and school. It was it was challenging to say the least.
Q: Yeah, the adjustment process is almost like a full-time job, because you get the post, and the Foreign Service Officer goes to the embassy and does their job, and you’re left with all the loose ends and figuring it out, and especially when you have children of any age, getting it all together for their adjustment.
REED: And not speaking the language necessarily, it’s just trying to filter through. So, it was hard for them. I think it’s hard for the trailing spouse as well. But we had a fabulous career. I’d do it all over again.
Q: Did your kids learn any of the local languages where you were posted?
REED: It’s funny because in Haiti, they did the classes in the morning in English and then in the afternoon in French. Creole, which is the official language, the kids were not allowed to speak that in class. But they did on the playground and my oldest daughter’s French was fabulous. And her Creole was pretty good.
Q: Did they retain any of that and it helped to translated into French?
REED: Her French is pretty good. My other two daughters haven’t kept it because they haven’t had to use it. Even my husband who’s fluent in French doesn’t use it anymore because he doesn’t speak with anybody who’s French speaking.
Q: How about Russian?
REED: Bob got an exemption for the language because they wanted him to go right away. Russia was the toughest posting for me because I couldn’t read the signs. I have a visual dictionary for other languages, but for Cyrillic, it’s tough. But the girls loved Moscow because everybody had a driver. So, all the families, when they wanted to go out, were transported with the driver, and they didn’t have to take the Metro or walk; they loved it.
Q: So that was a way of keeping them safe and having them have a social life.
Q: Do you have any tips for adjustment, making friends, and fitting in at new posts?
REED: The school does such a great job with welcoming new students, and so do the students themselves, because they know what it’s like. We spent the whole summer with my parents, and then we would go to a new post early before school started, just for the activities.
The kids are great because they know what it’s like to be new. One of the reasons that we went to Moscow and didn’t come back to the States is that one of my daughters would have never made it in a public school or even in a private school in the U.S., because those kids had been together their whole lives. So, breaking into that social scene would have never happened; it would have crushed her. We had an option of coming back to the U.S. or going to Russia, and we went to Russia instead, and it worked out great. It would have been hard for her to make that transition back to the U.S.
I think one of the biggest things for them was the fact that they didn’t drive when they came back for college, because in London, I didn’t teach them to drive, it was on the opposite side. And in Russia, the traffic is so bad you wouldn’t put anybody in a car.
Q: I think that’s what all Foreign Service kids face there. They come back at 18, and they don’t have a driver’s license. What about maintaining friendships when your kids moved from post to post? I mean, they were in the internet age. Were they able to maintain friendships as they moved on?
REED: They did. As a matter of fact, my youngest daughter, who works for State now, is in Baghdad on a six-week TDY [Temporary Duty Assignment], and on her way back, she’s stopping in London to see friends. The internet has enabled them to stay in touch.
Q: So, you were in some pretty dangerous posts. Besides having drivers for your kids, how did you deal with any hardships or dangers at the post, especially for the children?
REED: The kids were well protected. We didn’t have a driver; I was the driver, but they went out with their friends who had drivers. But I think the hardest thing for me was the cultural differences between other international families, like what’s acceptable behavior to them is not necessarily acceptable behavior to me. Like drinking in the UK is commonplace, and kids at 16 can drink. So, finding that balance of what’s acceptable and what’s not was difficult.
Q: You had mentioned that Bob had a posting in Peshawar [Pakistan] but he also, he was in Baghdad and other unaccompanied postings. So where did you live when you couldn’t go with him? And how was that for you being a single parent?
REED: We were in London when the war broke out [in Iraq], and Bob was part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team. I got to stay in London, which was one of the first times that the State Department ever did that. We had packed up our house when he got a phone call that said, “Do you want to come and do this job?” And literally the container had just left, and we had to call the truck to bring our stuff back.
Bob was such a hands-on parent, having him gone was a huge adjustment. Our oldest daughter who rowed had a pretty intense schedule which Bob assumed full responsibility for. When he was gone, I had to really manage time, especially when one daughter had to be at one practice and the other someplace else. Luckily, I had a wonderful woman who helped us out, but it was tough managing time because Bob did a lot with the kids.
And it was hard for him too coming back after being away for so long. Some advice that someone had given him through one of the offices at the State Department was when you come home on R&R, don’t go home; instead, take your family on leave, because it’s hard for you to come back and to be the parent when you miss so much. But luckily, we could talk often.
Q: I’m hearing from military families that they face that too, that the parent at home has been doing everything, and then the parent who has been away comes back and it’s almost like a foreign culture.
REED: One time when Bob came home on leave, he took the girls to Greece. I didn’t go because I was spent, and I just want to sit in bed and read a book and not have to think about transport or dinner or anything at the time. And he was okay with that.
Q: What are the challenges of Foreign Service life for kids at different ages? And did you have any issues with childcare when your children were young?
REED: I didn’t, because I wasn’t working, and I was probably one of the very few women that didn’t have a nanny. I didn’t need it because I was home. The challenges for them? Besides not driving, coming back to the States for university. My youngest called me one day shortly after I dropped her off at university and said, “These people are so immature.” I just laughed.
A friend was coming to visit, and I never really went to pick people up at the airport in London except my mother. I went to pick up my friend, my daughter said to me, “Why can’t she get from the airport on her own? I can do it. I’m 16, how come they can’t do it?” Again, I just laughed! So, you know, they I think they travel very well.
Q: And what do you think are the main advantages of Foreign Service life for kids?
REED: It’s an experience that you can’t even explain. People who knew me when I left said, “I can’t believe you’re the same person.” And you see so many things, and the opportunities are boundless. Both my middle and my youngest daughters did an internship in South Africa and got to see apartheid upfront. They went to Robben Island and saw things that you would never be able to see in your lifetime unless you were traveling. I think the opportunities were incredible. School trips were amazing; things the international schools did that a regular school in the U.S. would never do. One daughter went to Siberia. Who does that? Right. Another was sand sailing on Normandy Beach. Those experiences you just don’t get. And they all have a sense of adventure, too.
As far as my daughters are concerned, a big takeaway was they both had done a community service project in South Africa with the Amy Biehl Foundation. Amy Biehl was a woman who was working in the township and was murdered, and the fellow who murdered her now works for the Amy Biehl Foundation, and her parents have forgiven him. To see that kind of empathy and forgiveness and just the whole circumstances of her death and what had happened was something you can’t learn from a book; it’s life experience. And for my daughters, that kind of humility. They came home in such an awe of both parents and the fellow who murdered her. I think you just can’t teach those moments. They lived it. They worked with him. They watched him interact with the parents. How do you forgive someone for doing that? Or where was your mindset when you murdered this person? You know, it was incredible, and I think that left an indelible mark on both.
Q: And they all went into international pursuits after they graduated college, right?
REED: They did.
Q: You were saying that home base for you was in Massachusetts. Were you able to go back every year? And did your kids feel like, “I’m American, this is my home in Massachusetts?”
REED: Absolutely. My dad used to call and ask when school would be finished, and I’d say like June 10. His response was “So you’re home June 11.” And, of course, we were home June 11th for the whole summer. We went home for Christmas because Christmas for us is huge.
My family was fabulous. After my parents passed away and our family home was sold, my sister built her new home with two extra bedrooms for us so we would have a place to call home. So, we were very blessed. I know a lot of people don’t have that base; they don’t have a place to stay. When you do home leave for 20 days, you’re in a hotel. We were very lucky. I had a car, I had a place to stay, and my family was there. It was great.
Q: You mentioned that you kept your kids abroad until they were college age, and then they all came back to the U.S. to go to American universities. How was that adjustment for them?
REED: Well, it was crazy, just, being back in the U.S. The girls spent most of their time in London; we were there twice. Re-entry to the U.S. was odd for them. Not only just driving and maturity levels of their college friends but they were far more seasoned and well-rounded than their contemporaries.
Q: Yeah, your kids had been abroad for their whole lives, and then they came back to university. You talked a lot about the culture shocks that they had in living the U.S. for the first time.
REED: When they came back to the States for school, I was in London, so I wasn’t there. They came to school in Virginia. The saving grace for that was we had a good friend who was like their second mom, and if anything ever happened, she would have been right there to take care of whatever needed to be taken care of without me getting on a plane and flying back to the U.S. She was incredible. Not that anything happened, but just my sense that the kids are okay and somebody can get to them quickly. My sister would have come from Massachusetts, but somebody being on the ground here made it all the difference in the world. And they knew that.
Q: So, my next question was about how do you navigate with children in America when you’re living several time zones away? It sounds like the answer is having a trusted person on the ground that your kids can count on.
REED: I was just lucky because they were in the same state. And of course, we had cell phones then so the kids could call me anytime. I think I’m attached to my phone now because of my mindset. It was always with me. Even when I was back to work, if something happened, they knew that they could call me.
Q: So, were you in any other foreign posts when your other kids were in college?
REED: My oldest spent her senior year in Moscow. And then she went off to college. So, we were in Russia for her first year. And then back in London for the other two.
Q: So that worked out. You had mentioned the Office of Overseas Schools. And what are any other resources and sources of support that you can think of for parents who are raising Third Culture Kids?
REED: You don’t know what you don’t know. The Post reports are always informative, but you just you don’t know exactly is available until you hit the ground. The Marine Corps had their own set of post reports, and those are a little bit more graphic, like the one for Bamako that says, “The first thing you’re going to notice is the smell.” We often reached out to people who were posted in the same places that we were going, which was helpful. It’s tough because you’re trying to get yourself ready for a completely different culture, weather, and availability of common goods. You’ve got to move and pack and airfreight and storage and the kids. But you do it and get through it!
Q: You went to wildly different climates, too, between somewhere like Bamako and London and Moscow.
REED: It was funny because I had one pair of pants that I used to travel in. When we got to London, I had been in warm weather for 10 years, and the girls had worn uniforms before. They didn’t in London, and I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have to actually outfit them? And buy coats and shoes?” And everybody in London was wearing black. A month later, I’m also wearing black; it was completely crazy. I never wore pants. I didn’t have close-toed shoes, I always wore sandals.
Q: And in Moscow heavy, heavy coats.
REED: It was cold. It was cold and icy and dark.
Q: So, from your own experience with your three daughters and from talking with other parents who have been in various posts in the Foreign Service, do you have any other advice to share with parents of Foreign Service kids?
REED: If you have family, I think that’s an important to have a home base, especially for the kids, because life can be chaotic. You’re uprooting them every couple of years. Keeping a home base, if you can, in the States and family is important. I was lucky enough to have that.
Q: Anything that I haven’t asked anything else that you’d like to add?
REED: I think one of the most difficult things for my kids was when Bob was in Peshawar. And my brother called and said, “Did you see the news?” I was in Massachusetts, and I sat down, and he said, “Oh, you better turn it on.” And there was a news broadcast that Bob’s car was hit by a suicide bomber. I had to call my kids and forewarn them, “Please don’t worry, Dad’s fine” But that shook them to their core that this was a possibility that their father would not make it home.
Q: That’s just terrifying. Fortunately, he made it home, but he was in a dangerous place. And those things can happen, anywhere, but especially in high threat posts.
REED: That happened just the month after he got there. He finished a year there, but he was sleeping in his office because he couldn’t go back to his residence. He was pretty good about checking in with the girls and letting them know that he was fine and that he didn’t travel outside as much. That was the most difficult thing for them, knowing that he was potentially a target.
Q: And hard hardships for him and the way that he lived while you were living a nice life.
REED: I was in London; I was living the dream. He was dodging incoming rockets.
Q: Well, it sounds like you raised three very resilient daughters who had amazing experiences and went into professions where they can be overseas, who were able to be independent and navigate, travel, and live and work in different places. And so it sounds like this was really a rich experience for your family.
REED: It was. And there are always people who are always looking out for you. I think the sponsorship program was great.
Q: That’s another big resource that’s been around for many decades. Often it works well, sometimes not.
REED: I have been blessed with great sponsors especially in Bamako. A fellow Italian (who understands the important of food) and his wife who were not my sponsor took me under their wing. Had it not been for them, I probably would have gone home and never would have accompanied Bob to another post. We went from total organization in Germany to total chaos in Bamako. They saved my soul, and we are still in touch. I’d never have been able to do it. The meat market with flies on the meat— couldn’t have done it.
Q: Laurie, thank you so much for sharing your story, your adventures, your challenges, and everything. And I really enjoyed having you here.
REED: It was nice to see you today too.
End of Transcript
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