U.S. diplomat Brent Hartley, a native of Medford, keeps an eye out for potential threats during a helicopter ride over eastern Afghanistan last week.

Away from home for the holidays

Brent Hartley has a surefire method for relieving stress at the office.

"When I need to calm myself down, I picture myself driving up to Crater Lake on that long straight stretch past Prospect before you get to Union Creek," he said of taking an imaginary drive on Highway 62.

"It works for me," he added.

That's good, because work at his office can get a little hectic at times.

Hartley, 52, a Medford native who graduated from Medford Senior High School in 1973, is the counselor for political/military affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

His posting is considered the second most dangerous in the U.S. Foreign Service behind the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He usually wears body armor, travels in an armored vehicle and is accompanied by an armed escort when traveling in Afghanistan.

An arm of the U.S. Department of State, the Foreign Service provides diplomats to more than 260 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world.

He and his wife, Liz Dickinson, an attorney, live in the Washington, D.C., area. They have two children, Ella, 18, and Charlie, 16.

Hartley arrived in war-torn Afghanistan in late August for what is expected to be a year-long tour.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., majoring in history and international relations, Hartley joined the Foreign Service in 1981.

The son of the late Jack Hartley, who managed the Hubbard Hardware Store in Medford, acknowledges Kabul and the embassy life are a long way from the small-town USA that is Medford. His mother, Louise and herself a class of 1935 Medford High School graduate, is 92.

"In my last year of college, I did an internship with the State Department — they encouraged me to apply to the Foreign Service," he said of the path that eventually led him to Kabul.

His first foreign posting was to Cairo in 1982-84, followed by assignments to Rome and the U.S. mission to NATO in Brussels.

"It's been a kick," he said.

But his work also calls for long hours, often working from early morning until late at night. He works six days a week, taking Fridays off.

Although he was able to sleep in on Thanksgiving Day and take part in a traditional turkey dinner at the embassy, he expected to work. Although today is his normal day off, he had a work session scheduled during breakfast.

"I mostly work on the policy issues that come up with regard to military issues," he explained. "I don't get involved in tactical decisions in battles. It's looking more at the long-term effect on our strategy if the military pursues a particular practice or tactic."

His responsibilities also include working with NATO, the Afghan police and the media.

"It's unusual but the police is a big part of our portfolio," he said. "The police here have some big problems. We're working with military and civilian colleagues to help them (police) back on their feet. They are a critical element in helping Afghanistan recover."

As a United States diplomat in Afghanistan, he doesn't have the luxury of traveling freely.

"The terrorist threat is very high, very real," he said. "It's a challenge to get out and experience the culture here. I don't have a problem going out of the embassy on official business but it is always in an armored car."

He also wears body armor and is accompanied by a security detail.

"Of course, it all depends on the most recent intelligence threats," he said.

While the security for U.S. officials is very tight, there is a large expatriate and nongovernmental organization community living in Kabul, he said, estimating that population to be in the thousands.

"There are 'non-official' Americans who live in town," he said, noting they aren't considered to be in harm's way as much as embassy staff.

"Being an official makes you more of a target," he said.

Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, is located in a mountain valley at about 6,000 feet elevation.

"The mountains are closer in appearance and stature to the Rockies than the Cascades," he said. "There is not a lot of forests around but I feel right at home here. It can get smoggy but when it's clear it's magnificent."

Although he is looking forward to returning home next year to be there when his son completes his last year in high school, Hartley said the remote posting is a good experience.

"It's definitely one of the high points in my career," he said. "You feel like you are making a difference for our men and women in the military as well as the people here. It's extremely gratifying."

But he acknowledges there is a downside to the post, particularly during this Thanksgiving weekend.

"The bummer is I miss my family terribly," he said.

But he plans to be home on vacation over Christmas and New Year's.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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