The Foreign Service Journal - June 2014 - page 81

JUNE 2014
It Gets Better
Seriously Not All Right:
Five Wars in Ten Years
Ron Capps, Schaffner
Press, 2014, $25,
hardcover, 248 pages.
Reviewed by
Douglas A. Koneff
Seriously Not All
Right: Five Wars in
Ten Years
, former FSO
and Army veteran Ron Capps lays out in
sometimes graphic detail his struggles
with post-traumatic stress disorder over
a 14-year Foreign Service career. It was
a journey spent nearly exclusively in the
most dangerous parts of the world, and
one that nearly ended in 2005 with a pis-
tol to his head in East Africa. As he writes,
“I lost my sanity…and saw a successful
career disintegrate along with a 20-year
Capps’ journey raises two central
questions. The first is, “How did he reach
that point?” The answer is relevant to all
of us in the Foreign Service today. A 2007
State Department survey revealed that 17
percent of FSOs serving in stressful envi-
ronments acknowledged displaying some
symptoms of PTSD. According to AFSA
testimony before Congress the same year,
the real percentage might be closer to 40
Matters have not improved since then,
for more of us are serving in this type of
environment than ever before: more than
1,100 last year alone. Between 2003 and
2013, the department noted a fivefold
increase in FSOs serving in unaccompa-
nied posts.
PTSD often does not develop over-
night. This memoir shows us the cumula-
tive effect of personal observations of
human tragedy in Central Africa, Kosovo,
Afghanistan, Iraq and Dar-
fur. Shifting between Army
reserve intelligence assign-
ments and Foreign Service
postings, Capps constantly
deals with the victims of
unimaginable suffering:
rape, murder, immolation.
With the exception of a
single breach of the “chain
of command” in Darfur that
saved lives, Capps lacked the
authority to stop the violence.
The result was a condition that Brett
Litz, a Department of Veterans Affairs
psychiatrist, describes as “moral injury”:
the damage a person incurs when “failing
to prevent, learning about or bearing wit-
ness to acts that transgress deeply held
moral beliefs and expectations.”
The second question a reader might
ask is, “Why did he continue taking these
assignments, even after the emotional
effects became apparent?” The answer is
deeply complicated. Of course, military
assignments (and Foreign Service assign-
ments, for that matter) are not always a
matter of choice, and Capps’ background
made him a natural choice for these
types of jobs.
Besides, as he notes, staff work in
Washington, D.C., just did not hold his
interest. Capps believed he was at his
best when in the field, and whenever
that option presented itself, he took it.
In his own words, he “wanted to be the
man.” It wasn’t until he realized he’d seen
one corpse too many that he requested
medical evacuation from Darfur back to
the States in May 2006. At that point, his
recovery finally began.
Writing has always been an inte-
gral part of Ron’s life, and putting his
gruesome visions on paper helped him
control these painful memories. Cull-
ing details from dozens and dozens of
notebooks filled during a career spent in
violent places, he began to find peace. He
went on to create the Veterans Writing
Project, a nonprofit program that helps
veterans, service members and their
families learn to write and, through writ-
ing, begin to heal and understand.
This is not just a book for Foreign
Service officers or military officers. It is
for everyone who has a family member,
friend or colleague who has been affected
by the ravages of PTSD. It will help us
understand them, and know that they
really can be “All Right.”
Douglas A. Koneff, a Foreign Service officer
since 1993, is currently deputy principal of-
ficer in Ciudad Juarez.
A Shining Example
of Dissent
The Blood Telegram: Nixon,
Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide
Gary J. Bass, Vintage, 2014, $13.26/paper-
back, $14.99/Kindle Edition, 528 pages.
Reviewed by Clinton S. “Tad” Brown
When I arrived in Dhaka for my first
diplomatic posting 14 years ago, I was
saddled with heavy baggage that was
essentially invisible to me. Specifically,
I had no idea how prominent a role my
government had played in Bangladesh’s
struggle for independence from Paki-
stan—one of the 20th century’s bloodiest
conflicts, which forced 10 million people
This memoir shows us the
cumulative effect of personal
observations of human
tragedy in Central Africa,
Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq
and Darfur.
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