Courage under fire: One diplomat’s story

Van with U.S. flag leaving compound (© Pascal Le Segretain/Sygma/Getty Images)
American citizens evacuate during unrest in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, June 12, 1997. (© Pascal Le Segretain/Sygma/Getty Images)

William S. Rowland’s long career as a foreign service officer began with danger and heroism during the 1997 civil war in the Republic of the Congo.

Closeup of man smiling (Courtesy of William Rowland)
William Rowland (Courtesy of William Rowland)

The U.S. Department of State recognized Rowland September 29 as a part of the Heroes of Diplomacy series, citing his bravery and quick thinking amid violence and the outbreak of war.

In 1997, Rowland was two years into his first assignment as a foreign service officer in Brazzaville. Civil war broke out in June when rebel troops surrounded the president’s house and took over the city.

The U.S. Embassy in Brazzaville tried to evacuate, but militia and government forces battling each other blocked their exit route with active gunfire and shelling. On the second day of fighting, forces overran the embassy’s gates and the diplomats were sent to a secure location inside the building.

The embassy staff slept on pillows made from mailbags stuffed with shredded documents. Outside, militia groups continued to fight.

“I don’t know that I really had time to be frightened,” Rowland said. “I mean, it was just everything was going on, and you’re so involved in the situation, you don’t really think about it that way.”

When word later arrived that a militia group was holding two American diplomats, Rowland volunteered to retrieve them. He took the ambassador’s bulletproof vehicle across rebel territory to negotiate and secure their release.

What made him volunteer for such a dangerous mission? “It just seemed the right thing to do,” he said.

The embassy was able to arrange for some of the staff to leave on a missionary airplane days later. However, plans fell through on the way to the airport, and the airplane was unable to meet them.

The only other plane on the runway had a Russian crew. Luckily, Rowland spoke the language. He negotiated with the crew and ultimately secured a flight for himself and his colleagues to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From there, everyone returned home safely.

Rowland continued in the foreign service for another 23 years, retiring this summer. His advice to diplomats anywhere is to be prepared for anything.

He said what motivated him for the entirety of his career was the opportunity to “help out Americans when they are in a situation where they can’t help themselves.”