Foreign Service Officer Learns About Middle East Firsthand
As the U.S. Government closed embassies in the Middle East and evacuated personnel this summer in response to terrorist threats in the region, alumnus Ron Mendez left Yemen on Aug. 6 with only a backpack.
Packed among his few clothes and personal belongings, was an American flag that has traveled with him around the world to war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. He only had 10 days left on his one-year tour in Sana’a, Yemen, as a political-military officer in the foreign service.
Mendez’s international training began at the University of St. Thomas, where he earned a bachelor’s in international studies in 1997. After a difficult freshman year in 1982, he took time off from his studies at St. Thomas and enlisted in U.S. Navy, which Mendez said made him more prepared for school when he returned in 1995. “I was more focused, more energized,” he said.
The Center for International Studies, especially the former director Dr. Ronald Hatchett, helped Mendez tailor his degree to focus more on government than business. Mendez took advantage of the Consortium of International Studies program, available at the time, to take classes at area universities.
“I made the most of that program,” he said. “I attended international studies and foreign policy courses at UST, University of Houston and Rice University, focused on national security.”
Knowing he wanted to continue serving his country, Mendez took a graduate internship at the State Department, while pursuing a Master in Liberal Arts at UST and was later offered a full-time job in the foreign service.
Since then, he has served in the hard terrains of war-torn countries under heightened threat, most recently in Yemen.
In September 2012, a month after he arrived in Yemen, there were a series of protests directed at the U.S. embassy . The protests came two days after the embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stephens and four State Department officials.
“Protestors scaled the walls, burned our vehicles, and trashed the embassy complex,” Mendez said. “We were locked down, waiting to see what would happen next.” The embassy remained on high alert in the following year.
Mendez worked as a liaison officer to the Republic of Yemen government, military and security services on counterterrorism issues. Despite the turmoil in the region, he said the Yemeni people — men dressed in traditional white attire with headband, tribal belt and jambiya, or knife, and women in black abayas, or head-to-toe veils — were polite and accommodating.
“People will share what they have with you, even if they don’t have much,” he said. “It’s nice to see that there’s some humanity out there amidst the danger and conflict going on.”
Following his evacuation, Mendez is now back in Houston for some much-needed time off. He has a few weeks to spend with his parents and siblings, including his brother and fellow alumnus Gary Mendez ’89.
Mendez is looking forward to his state-side service and a step into senior management beginning in September. He will be an instructor for the next few years at a U.S. Government training facility in Williamsburg, Va., sharing his experiences with other U.S. government and military officials.
“Embassies have far more than the state department personnel now,” he said. “There are representatives from the U.S. government to include the military, FBI and Homeland Security. That is a change from years past. As an instructor, I will be able to assist people to acclimate.”
Mendez encourages students to pursue opportunities to learn more about the foreign service.
“I would have students consider an internship with the State Department, as it gave me a better understanding of their mission, along with a greater appreciation for the role foreign service officers play in implementing foreign policy and addressing the needs of countries around the world,” he said.
As Mendez approaches 20 years of federal service, he hopes to go overseas and do one or more tours in much nicer places — no more war zones.
“I’ve enjoyed every assignment I’ve had and I’ve learned a lot from them,” he said. “I figure that’s a good thing.”