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 Montpelier Magazine

On the weekends, U.S. press attaché Judy Moon and her children, Thomas, on foot, and Ella, in backpack, head out for some mountain hiking. At work in the U.S. Information Office in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Moon need only look out of the window to glimpse these Zailisky Alatau Mountains, a branch of the Himalayas.

Madison Globetrotter

One foot in the road leads to a career in the world's hot spots

When Judy Moon ('77) was 2, her parents piled their four children into the family station wagon for the 2,700-mile trek from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to visit her mom's twin sister. Soon after came 18-hour trips to Birmingham, Ala., to visit her father's mother. "Off we would go [on Thursday] right after school, says Moon, "and on Friday morning when my grandmom went out to get the paper she'd find us all snoozing in her driveway."

Moon has had "one foot in the road" ever since.

As she was growing up, collecting brochures and requesting information on foreign countries from the government, Moon dreamt of more exotic destinations. During her sophomore year at Madison College she managed a winter break study trip to the Soviet Union with Russian and French professor Elizabeth Neatrour. After graduating with a major in foreign languages and literatures in 1977, Moon traveled in Europe and Great Britain twice, took a road trip across the United States and then began her graduate studies on scholarship at the Pushkin Institute at Moscow State University.

Moon has focused that wanderlust, along with a facility with languages, into a career in the Foreign Service, which has taken her around the world and landed her in some of the globe's hot spots.

Moon just finished an assignment as the press and information officer and official spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan, the second largest of the former Soviet republics. For almost a decade, the country has been making strides toward democracy and a market economy. "It is a country creating itself anew, looking at the West for some help, but designing its own plan," says Moon, who works through the U.S. Department of State.

When Kazakhstan gained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, the new country plunged into political, social and economic chaos. "The sudden loss of communism as both an economic and a political system meant that the so-called 'safety nets' disappeared before anything had been created to take their places," says Moon. In fact, many people are worse off now than they were under the Soviet systems, she says.

The U.S. government has been working to help the government of Kazakhstan establish programs to alleviate its problems, and the Kazakhstanis are eager to learn, but not ready to buy everything "wholesale," says Moon. "This healthy skepticism, this willingness to undertake critical thinking, is what often sets members of the younger generation apart from the old.

"These places in the former Soviet Union are starting from ground zero, in many cases," Moon continues. "The process of building democratic institutions will take much longer than the nine short years of independence."

In fact, she adds, the fairness of recent elections in Kazakhstan fell far short of international standards, revealing that the country is still grappling with its past. "There is some feeling that the 'old' powers will have to die before reform can really take hold," says Moon.

"Some Kazakhstanis are not surprised by these events and claim that many people hanker for a strong leader, the kind they had during Soviet times," she says. "They fall into the trap of believing that one man has all the answers. It is a mentality that will not fade quickly, and we fool ourselves if we think it will."

Moon, who speaks Russian, French and Indonesian, was also responsible for providing the Kazakhstani government and public with information on anything even remotely connected with the United States.

"Recently the parliament has been drafting new laws on agricultural reform and came to us for information on the reform measures and agricultural assistance programs passed in the 1930s under Roosevelt's New Deal program," says Moon. "We spend a considerable amount of time explaining the U.S., its policies, people and government," she says. "Having been cut off in many ways from the outside world for more than 70 years, there are many information gulfs between our two peoples."

Moon's office helps to bridge these gaps by providing Internet access training, disseminating information and facilitating discussions. Moon's office also works with local journalists and independent media outlets to improve their professionalism and management practices. "We believe that a free, independent and responsible media is crucial to the development of democratic institutions," she says.

A constant bright spot in Moon's job is the variety of people she has met and with whom she has worked. "I have been fortunate to work alongside some truly talented people from around the world," she says. "My local staff colleagues have been great teachers and invariably patient to the 'new' American who has been dropped in on them to manage the office and direct policies and programs. They have broadened my mind and enhanced my life."

Yet because of the work they have undertaken to promote American ideas, many of these friends have put themselves in grave danger. "One of our local employees here was severely beaten [in 1999] by 'unknown' assailants for reasons we believe were connected to his work in reporting on the opposition parties in the runup to presidential elections in Kazakhstan," Moon says.

"[Foreign Service officers] oftentimes work in places where our support for free speech, open and democratic election, transparent court processes, and other democratic institutions bring us and our colleagues into direct conflict with local government policies," she says. "But we believe that all peoples have the same basic human rights, and it is both necessary and appropriate for us to support those who share similar democratic beliefs."

Despite the intensity of her professional commitment, work isn't all-consuming for Moon. She spent her Kazakhstan assignment in the capital of Almaty with her husband, Allan Browne, a New Zealander she met while she served as cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon in 1986. Five-year-old Thomas, adopted in Indonesia, and 2-year-old Ella, adopted last June in Kazakhstan, complete the family circle.

"It's a beautiful and fascinating part of the world," says Moon. "Much of Kazakhstan is 'virgin' territory for foreigners, especially Westerners."

In fact, the country was both Genghis Khan's and Dostoevsky's stomping grounds and housed the former Soviet Union's most far-flung and secret outposts, she says. A branch of the Himalayas runs past Moon's office window, and her apartment faces the famous Silk Road. "This is an outdoorsmen's and -women's paradise," she says.

Before Kazakhstan, Moon and her husband lived in Indonesia, where they adopted their son. It's a country where mounting political, economic and social tensions have recently boiled over into widespread civil un-rest. In 1998, a widely supported democratic election - the country's first - initially decreased the level of civil unrest, but there are problems throughout the country as the nation struggles to establish democracy while battling past demons of corruption and nepotism. In the wake of its vote for independence in 1999, the former province of East Timor suffered violence at the hands of pro-Jakarta militia. A United Nations peacekeeping and transition force was dispatched and is still in place.

"Most people were happy about our support for democratic institutions," Moon says. "Those who felt threatened by our support undoubtedly tried to undermine it, though usually through attacks on Indo-nesian groups, and not directly at us."

Yet, despite facing these challenges in Indonesia and more recent challenges in Kazakhstan, Moon never forgets the ultimate responsibility of her position. "I am a public servant," she says. "I take the responsibility of those five words very seriously. … Edward R. Murrow [who headed the U.S. Information Agency before his death in 1965] said that the most important distance in building a relationship is 'the last three feet,' meaning face-to-face contact. This is at the heart of public diplomacy … bringing people together, and it's what I love about my job."

Despite her unforgettable experiences, Moon stresses that life in the Foreign Service is not glamorous and that assignments to remote parts of the world, without everyday American conveniences, are common.

"I know that many people have an image of diplomats as fat folks wearing a top hat and tails and attending cocktail parties and balls," she says. "I don't mind blowing that image to bits. Most diplomats work long hours in very cramped quarters for average wages. Rarely do I see folks leaving the embassy less than an hour after work has officially ended.

"Most invitations are not to glittering balls but to mundane speeches, meetings and receptions," she says. "The job brings with it more and more often the real threat of danger. Over the years, more ambassadors have been killed in the line of duty than generals."

"Most Americans believe the U.S. spends 15 to 30 percent of the national budget on foreign assistance," she says. "In fact, less than one half of one percent of the annual U.S. budget goes to foreign assistance - this is shameful for the world's richest and most powerful nation. … Bringing people together in exchange programs does far more to combat misunderstanding and develop peaceful relations than threats and bombs."

Despite Moon's naturalness and success in her career, it took some stimulus for her to take that first step toward the Foreign Service.

"I had no idea what I wanted to accomplish through the use of my foreign language skills," she told an audience of students at JMU in the fall of 1999, as part of the Distinguished Alumni Speaker series. "But I had taken a huge variety of undergraduate courses giving me a wealth of know-ledge that I have used throughout my life. … You never know where one thing that you learn will lead you."

After Moon graduated, she began a graduate program in Moscow at the Pushkin Institute. "After a semester, I decided I needed a dose of reality," Moon says. "I left and traveled through Europe and then spent four months driving around the U.S. I realized I had seen a lot of the rest of the world but knew little about my own people. The trip brought home to me the splendid variety of cultures and peoples who are America."

When she finally returned home, Moon found that there were few jobs for Russian speakers. "The many new immigrants from the Soviet Union had the upper hand as native speakers," she says.

Moon spent five years with Dun & Bradstreet, a business information firm, before itching to trade in a good salary, good career prospects and comfortable life for the uncertainty of the road. "I broke out of a very comfortable shell," she says. "I gave it up for the unknown life of a Foreign Service officer. I didn't even know any Foreign Service officers. I wasn't even sure what I might be doing. I only knew it was a challenge I couldn't resist."

In fact, it was her continued relationship with her Russian and French professor at JMU, Elizabeth Neatrour, that ultimately served as the catalyst for her career in the Foreign Service.

"As I had often done in the past, I sought her counsel on this rather momentous change in my career and personal life," Moon says. "Her advice was simple, and I have passed it on to many others: 'You can only regret that which you don't attempt.'"

Moon became a Foreign Service officer in the fall of 1984, joining what was then the U.S. Information Agency (it merged with the Department of State in 1999 to become the Office of Public Diplomacy). In 1986, she went to Cameroon on her first foreign assignment. Lonely, overworked and overwhelmed, however, she began to doubt her decision.

"I sent a letter of resignation to my personnel officer," she says. "It must have gotten lost in the diplomatic mail or the personnel officer had experience enough to ignore it. I never heard a word and I haven't looked back since."

Neatrour was right. Moon doesn't regret her decision to join the Foreign Service, which takes her next to Pretoria, South Africa, another country that is in the midst of dramatically transforming itself.

"My life is enriched," she says. "I feel I have been able to make real contributions in the countries in which I have lived. … My work is challenging and rewarding, each day new and different, [and] I have been blessed with a terrific international family … and with friends from around the world."

By Kara S. Carpenter ('00)