RPCV Who Served with Distinction in the Foreign Service (Ethiopia)

Recently, I have published a series of blog items on RPCVs who have fulfilled Kennedy’s wish that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers would join the State Department and become our future ambassadors and finally break the “pale, male & Yale” syndrome of the Foreign Service. I have now identified fifty-four RPCVs, men and women of all ethnic groups, who have become, as they are formally called, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.

RPCVs have also made significant contributions to the State Department in many ways  besides becoming ambassadors. One who did so is Tom Gallagher,  a Volunteer with me in Ethiopia from 1962-64.

Gallagher was the youngest chief of a major diplomatic mission (US Consulate, Guayaquil), and was well on his way to an ambassadorial appointment when he made the decision to become the first civil servant in the world to publicly and voluntarily declare that he was a homosexual.

Having done so, the State Department forced him to resign. Then after more than two decades of exile, President Clinton made it possible for Tom to return to the Foreign Service.

As a mid-career Foreign Service officer there wasn’t enough time for Tom to become an Ambassador. But in his final eleven years in the Foreign Service, he was given the responsibility for managing the government’s day-to-day responses to the two biggest wars since 1945 as Country Officer for Sudan and the Congo.

In those offices Tom writes that he “was able to stop two wars pretty much on my own by stopping the Nuer and Dinka tribes from going to war in South Sudan.”

Tom was also responsible for getting rid of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army which had killed 200,000 people and enslaved 30,000 Ugandan children.

Next, with two other former Peace Corps Volunteers from Ethiopia/Eritrea, Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962-64) and David Gurr (Ethiopia 1962-64), he tried to stop the ongoing war between both countries, earning praised from President Clinton for their example of “grass roots diplomacy.”

“I was hardly ‘grass roots” Tom says of that effort. “On the contrary, I was breaking every rule in the books.” Later, in 2016, Hilary Clinton would publicly praise Tom while giving a foreign policy speech, for “permanently changing the State Department” by being the first openly gay Foreign Service Officer. Colin Powell mentioned in one of his World AIDS Day speeches that Tom had raised $3 million for the Spanish AIDS Foundation. And Secretary of State Madeline Albright gave Tom a Certificate of Appreciation for the work he did following the bombing of the US Embassies in Dar and Nairobi.

Tom also led the US delegation to an international conference in the Hague that raised $1.5 billion in food aid for Sudan.  Then in September 2001 he twice refused visas to the United States for the son of the imam of the mosque in Mollenbeek, Brussels, who inspired the bombers in Paris, Nice and Brussels.  The imam’s son was planning to return to his friends at the flight school in Opa Laka, FL to continue his training in mosquito spraying. At the time, the CIA was publicly reporting its concern that al-Quaida was planning a second event which could involve spraying a major US city.

The only cities that a fully-loaded light plane could reach from Opa Laka are Miami and Orlando/Disneyworld.  That didn’t happen.

Tom at the 2017 Pride March in Washington, D.C.

Based on his history at the State Department, Gallagher is one example of an RPCV who is too free-spirited and rebellious to achieve an ambassadorship. But, nevertheless, he and other RPCVs like him have made a difference and a contribution to the Foreign Service and our foreign affairs.




Yesterday, Sunday, July 8th

I am sad to add to Tom’s story this final note. One month ago, Tom went to the hospital because he was having breathing issues and came home with sepsis. Two days later, he returned to the hospital. There he was so bad, he was on dialysis. While in the hospital, he also had a bad fall which injured his hip and ankle, and a week ago, he was transferred to a rehab facility. Very early this Sunday morning, he wanted to go to the lounge to watch television. And later he requested to go back to bed. Shortly after that, when the staff was checking on him, Tom was unresponsive. The staff called 911 and paramedics came but couldn’t revive him. Tom died on Sunday afternoon, July 8, 2018. May he rest in peace. Or as they say in Amharic, nefes ymar 



Leave a comment
  • What a touching, inspiring story! Thank you, John. And sincere condolences on the loss of your friend, Tom Gallagher.


  • Thanks, John, for this touching tribute to Tom Gallagher, a former PCV colleague and a very effective good neighbor to many, especially in Africa. I hadn’t followed his career so really appreciate this bio by you. I’m sorry to hear of his death.

  • Perhaps the best tribute to Tom’s career and his efforts with others to stop the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is the announcement today that the two countries have declared peace and normalized relations after 16 years of on again off again hostilities.

  • I wrote this profile of Tom for Slate, which finally ran almost two weeks ago. Much of what I read here was so useful for this story, John, and I thank you for it.

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