SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, good morning, everyone.
President Rubin – Eric – thank you for making this event happen. To you, to the American Foreign Service Association, the DACOR Bacon House Foundation, the Senior Living Foundation: we are so grateful for everything that you do to support our diplomats.
As Eric said, I’m also very gratified that we’re all here today in person once again. It makes today even more meaningful.
To every member of our foreign affairs agencies, whether you’re serving now or whether you served in the past, thank you. Thank you for the critical work that you do. Thank you for your dedication, your professionalism, your patriotism – all that you bring to our missions around the world.
As President Biden often says, we find ourselves now at an inflection point. So many of the actions that we take today are going to shape the lives of the American people for decades to come – whether that’s meeting the challenge of great power competition, addressing the climate crisis, shaping the rules for emerging technologies, working to prevent the next pandemic.
These challenges make our diplomacy more critical than it’s ever been.
And it’s only by working with allies, with partners that we can actually solve these problems – and seize some of the opportunities – that are too big for any one nation to face alone. And you are the ones leading the charge – following in the footsteps of generations of extraordinary public servants.
Last year, more than 800 members of the Foreign and Civil Service retired, having devoted decades of their lives to this institution and to the American people.
Altogether, that cohort dedicated over 22,000 years of service to our country. Its members worked in every single bureau in this department, at posts in more than 170 countries.
They tackled the most important issues of our time: protecting the environment, defending human rights, aiding refugees, expanding economic opportunity, negotiating peace agreements.
This class built and deepened ties between the United States and other countries. They forged new partnerships. They facilitated exchange programs. They issued countless visas and passports.
Their actions, big and small, changed the trajectory of so many lives, here and around the world.
But today, we celebrate not only what our diplomats do, but how they do it.
These jobs, as President Rubin said, require extraordinary sacrifice – from diplomats who work long hours; from their loved ones who support them.
These jobs demand character. They demand integrity.
And serving as a diplomat also requires courage. Right now, around the world, our colleagues are working in war zones, under foreign surveillance, amidst humanitarian crises, in the aftermath of natural disasters. Some experience serious accidents abroad; others are exposed to severe illness or health hazards. Some of our LGBTQI colleagues serve in places where they – and their partners – don’t feel safe to be their full selves.
Just this week, we lost a treasured local staff member at Embassy Lisbon, Rui Noronha, who died in the course of his duty. His family’s loss is our loss, too.
But our diplomats face these situations with tremendous heart, with compassion, with decency, focusing not on themselves, but on helping the people around them, who often go through some of the hardest days of their lives.
Simply put, that’s our mission. And for generations, our diplomats have carried on despite danger, despite difficulty.
Nowhere is that devotion more clearly illustrated than in the 312 individuals honored on our Memorial Walls – those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
This year, we pay special tribute to two more members of the Foreign Service: Thomas Wallis and Elbridge Lee, both of whom died from COVID-19 in 2021.
Tom dedicated his life to public service – first as a soldier in the U.S. Army, where he completed several tours, and was awarded a Bronze Star. Then, he became a consular officer. He brought a spirit of service to everything that he did. Tom had a special fountain pen that he used only to sign certificates of death abroad – to make sure that they looked dignified for the families who received them. When he sat at the consular window – working with foreigners or helping Americans in crisis – Tom was calm, he was friendly, he was easy to talk to. He also lifted up his team. He was the kind of person who would stop by his supervisor’s office, just to let her know that a coworker had done a great job. He brought this kindness everywhere he went: from the animal rescue organizations he supported around the world, to trivia games, where he was always everyone’s first pick, apparently, to be on their team.
Elbridge – who went by his last name, Lee – specialized in information management, and by all accounts he was a natural diplomat. Thoughtful, compassionate, a talented problem-solver. Whether you were a colleague, a friend, a family member, if you needed advice, you went to Lee. And people wanted to be like him. One of his former teammates said that, in tough situations, he found himself asking, “What would Lee do?” Lee was proud to be an American, proud to serve his country. So much so that it rubbed off on the people around him, especially those closest to him. Years ago, he encouraged his wife, Josie, to apply to the State Department. She still works here today. His eldest daughter, Naomi, said that her interest in the world and the people in it came from her dad. And when his youngest daughter, Esther, starts college this fall, she’s planning on studying international relations.
The State Department – the United States of America – are better because of Tom and Lee. Because of their service, but also because of who they were as people.
To their family – Tom’s wife, Monica; Lee’s wife, Josie, their daughters, Naomi and Esther – we will be forever grateful, grateful that we got to know – and that we got to work alongside – your exceptional loved ones.
With this new plaque, we honor the permanent mark that they made on this department, and on our country.
And by carrying out their dedication and compassion – and continuing the spirit of service that runs through every single name on these walls – we will work to keep their legacies alive.
May God bless you. Thank you.
Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-the-american-foreign-service-association-memorial-plaque-ceremony/