Political strife, protecting U.S. diplomats are part of the job for former Rotary Peace Fellow

Justin Peele, a graduate of the Rotary Peace Fellowship and an agent of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, gets off the plane during his assignment protecting the Secretary of State John Kerry during a trip to South Korea.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Justin Peele

As an agent for the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, Justin Peele applies the education he received in conflict resolution as a Rotary Peace Fellow to a job that puts him in some dicey situations – including one in 2013 in which his actions won him State Department recognition for his courage and decisiveness.

Peele is one of 2,000 DS agents who protect U.S. diplomats and embassies around the world. The Diplomatic Security Service, the law enforcement and security arm of the U.S. State Department, is the most extensive global security agency in the government, operating in more than 160 countries.

"This is my dream job," says Peele, who was in the 2011-12 class of Rotary Peace Fellows at the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "I'm in a unique position where I must face conflict head-on."

This proved true when Peele served as the assistant regional security officer in Mali. It was a period when the country was torn by political strife and violence as several Islamic insurgent groups fought the government for greater autonomy in the northern part of the country. The crisis led factions of the military who were displeased with the government's response to overthrow President Amadou Toumani Touré in 2012. Because of the conflict, the State Department sent extra security to protect the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali's capital.

One day in 2013, violent clashes between students and the police trapped an embassy worker and four Malian colleagues in the National Institute of Health offices in downtown Bamako. When the fighting spun out of control, embassy officials called on Peele to safely extract the workers.

As he and a driver navigated through the war-torn streets, "I could see the smoke and tear gas from a long distance," recalls Peele. He now admits to having been a little nervous, but says he knew that his training would enable him to carry out the mission. "We found them, hurried them into the vehicle and were able to get out of there safely and bring them back to the embassy without harm."

For his response that day, the State Department gave Peele its Meritorious Honor Award for "courageous, efficient, and decisive action taken."

"During a time of crisis is the best time to shine," he says. "There is a lot of trust with my job -- to be able to look someone in the eye and say, 'If you're in trouble, I will be the person to come get you.' "

In addition to moving diplomats safely from place-to-place, members of the Diplomatic Security Service work with host nation law enforcement representatives to investigate crimes against U.S. citizens, coordinate protection details with the security teams of foreign dignitaries, and maintain frequent contact with local community members.

One of Peele's other assignments was a six-month stint as part of the security detail for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, as he crisscrossed the world on diplomatic missions, with stops in China, Israel, Europe, and the Middle East.

"I get a front-row seat for observing U.S. foreign policy, and help represent the U.S. all over the world," says Peele. "It's a great lesson in government, diplomacy, and humanity."

Although many DS agents have military or law enforcement backgrounds, others are lawyers, scientists, linguists, and yes, even peace scholars. Peele, who served for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, says his experience there and as a Rotary Peace Fellow helped him get his foot in the door at the security agency.

He recalls that the State Department officials who interviewed him were impressed with his global education in peace and conflict resolution. "With Rotary and the Peace Corps I was able to work closely with the local populace. I think that went a long way in getting this job," he says.

"I learned a lot from my peace fellowship. The bottom line is that everything we do is to ease the suffering of others," says Peele. "Not only are the Peace Centers a good example of that, but everything Rotary does is an example of how to reach that goal."

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