Off hours, Diplomat families teach swimming in Baghdad, Battle of the Bulge

December 8, 2009

If you wondered what U.S. diplomats and their families do in their spare time in the exotic, less exotic and sometimes really difficult places where they live, here’s a partial answer.

They volunteer in their communities.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented awards Tuesday recognizing half a dozen American foreign service workers or their family members for outstanding volunteer work abroad.

Clinton said the award recognized those who “have furthered our nation’s diplomacy and development efforts.”

NATO/Recipients did everything from providing medical services to the poor and disadvantaged in Indonesia to teaching swimming to adults living under tight security in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Laura Center, the spouse of a foreign service officer, has a master of arts degree in museum studies and has been volunteering at the National Museum of Military History in Diekirch.

The museum tells the story of the World War II Battle of the Ardennes, and especially the Battle of the Bulge, which began 65 years ago Dec. 16 and is considered the largest and bloodiest of the war involving U.S. forces.

“The museum thrives on the volunteer work of men and women who have clocked over 65,000 hours of personal time since the museum opened in 1984,” Center told a gathering in the State Department’s ceremonial Benjamin Franklin Room.

She said she has been involved in connecting the museum to American troops stationed in Europe. And she has worked with local schoolteachers to create a traveling classroom exhibit to enhance school curriculums on the Battle of the Bulge.

Others honored for their volunteer work included:

Erin Sweeney, a consular officer in Nigeria who established a community service program that has helped a school for the blind, a maternity clinic and a shelter for victims of human trafficking.

JanMarie Flattum-Riemers, an embassy medical officer, who has worked with the poor, disadvantaged and disabled in Jakarta.

Marine Sgt. Bernadetta Ruch, who led a Toys for Tots drive at the U.S. mission in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, brought children from an orphanage for a holiday event and organized other gatherings for the embassy community.

Jan Irene Miller, a foreign service spouse in Panama with experience managing global technology projects, who volunteered to help the Panama Chamber of Commerce develop proposals for solving Panama City’s transportation problems.

And Joseph Taylor, the head of the Fulbright Exchange Program in Baghdad, who used his off hours to teach adult swimming classes to more than 60 people from 18 countries who live in the restricted, high-security environment of the Green Zone.

Taylor said the Franklin Room was an appropriate place for the ceremony.

The early American envoy was an excellent swimmer who once contemplated becoming a swimming coach.

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Photo credit: Reuters/Sebastien Pirlet (Clinton speaking at a news conference in Brussels earlier this month)

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