Russian demonstrators outside the US Embassy in Moscow, Russia, March 27, 1999.
Photographer unknown. Author’s collection.

Editor’s Note: This essay appeared in Volume 13


My neighbor Paula, a calm and sensible woman married to a retired Coast Guard officer, texted me a little after noon. My heart rate spiked. The last time she’d contacted me in the middle of the day, careless teenagers camping in the woods had set a fire that threatened both of our houses.

Are you watching the news?

I could either watch elected officials argue about the Electoral College vote count and Joe Biden’s November 2020 presidential victory, or I could get some work done. I’d chosen to write.

What’s going on? I replied.

Trouble at the Capitol.

I opened a live news feed. At the Ellipse, President Donald Trump ranted about the “stolen election”; crowds of people with tense, angry faces swarmed down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Images that threatened intimidation and violence flashed across my screen: ill-fitting camouflage pants and red ball caps, “blue line” and Confederate battle flags, and banners that read “Trump 2020.” The camera cut to the west front of the Capitol and a waist-high perimeter of eight-foot- long sections of galvanized steel barricade fencing, each weighing just twenty-five pounds.

Where was the police line? Still at the Ellipse? Following the crowd? I imagined the legislators and their assistants watching footage of the approaching demonstrators from inside the Capitol.

The flickering screen of my iPad unleashed an electric current of adrenaline down my spine and a reel of memories two decades old began to unspool.

This won’t end well, I texted Paula. Somebody’s gonna get hurt.


That evening I was responsible for locking up the Defense Attaché Office, then still in the old chancery building on Moscow’s busy Novinsky Boulevard. I wanted to go home but had no excuse to herd the assorted colonels still working out of the office. My husband, David, a civilian embassy employee, had already returned to our apartment on the embassy grounds to relieve our housekeeper and feed dinner to our seventeen-month-old son.

Rick, an assistant Army attaché, offered to persuade the two colonels working in the vault on the floor below to leave. He locked up the vault while I checked the safes and swept the desktops in the main office: documents left out overnight earned attachés a pink slip from the duty Marine security guard and a counseling from the defense attaché, an Army brigadier general. After we finished lock-up, the colonels pulled Rick into their conversation about the upcoming visit of a delegation from Washington. I gestured that I’d wait for him in the hall.

At the elevator, I glanced at my watch: eighteen fifty-six.

Just as Rick stepped out of the office, five or six pops echoed in the elevator shaft: the unmistakable sound of small arms fire. Very close by.

The duty Marine security guard keyed the mic on the public address system. “The Embassy is under terrorist attack. Move away from the windows and get down. Remain in the Old Embassy Building until further notice. Repeat. The Embassy is under terrorist attack.”


In the attaché course we visited two memorials.

At the CIA Headquarters Memorial Wall, each of the seventy stars carved into the granite blocks marked the loss of an agent or employee in the line of duty. We took turns leafing through the Book of Honor. Many of the personnel represented on the wall had been assigned to US embassies overseas.

Military personnel at US embassies speak for the Department of Defense to host nation defense officials and interpret the host nation’s military activities for US policymakers. They coordinate the visits of senior DoD officials, naval vessels, and military aircraft. They escort the Secretary of Defense and their entourage of assistants, deputies, and aides to meetings with their foreign counterparts. They gossip with other attachés at cocktail parties and formal dinners. They serve as human bunting at the ambassador’s Fourth of July and Veterans Day events—their four-cord aiguillettes sparkling like the gold leaf embellishing Russian icons. The majority of a military attaché’s tour is representational.

But sometimes they die.

Six of the twelve hexagonal brass plates fixed on the mahogany memorial wall at the Defense Intelligence Agency headquarters in 1997 honored women. Five of them, DIA employees assigned to USDAO Saigon, had volunteered for Operation Babylift in April 1975. Their C-5A Galaxy crashed minutes after takeoff; all five women and the seventy-eight orphaned Vietnamese babies in their care had perished.

The other six had been military attachés or operations coordinators. Terrorists had killed five:

Major Robert Perry: Amman, Jordan, 1970.
Colonel Charles Ray: Paris, France, 1982.
Chief Warrant Officer (3) Kenneth D. Welch, and Petty Officer First Class Michael Wagner: Beirut, Lebanon, 1983.
Captain William Nordeen: Athens, Greece, 1988.

When you receive your diplomatic accreditation, our instructors told us, you are no longer Major John Doe or Lieutenant Commander Jane Doe. You are a visible symbol of the United States, and you are a terrorist target. Yours could be the next name on this wall.

Somber, I pictured a brass hexagonal plate engraved with my name. I was a volunteer. I believed that our country and its Constitution were worth dying for. But I was no saintly martyr painted on an iconostasis, happy to die for my faith. I pushed the uncomfortable vision away.

I was learning to identify potential threat scenarios, to survive hostage situations, and to drive aggressively and defensively. I qualified on the nine-millimeter pistol. I knew the roles and responsibilities of military attachés, Marine security guards, and the State Department regional security officer if terrorists attacked my embassy.

I was not among the attachés scheduled for additional counterterrorism training after completing the basic course.

Russia was not considered a “high terrorist threat” posting.


David and I learned that I was pregnant in the final week of the attaché course—ideal timing since our language training schedule was flexible. Our first son made his appearance on a hot July evening five months before our planned arrival in Moscow.

I was nursing Will, just eight days old, when we heard that terrorists had simultaneously detonated bombs at two embassies in East Africa. A bomb planted in a gasoline tanker exploded near the front entrance of the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing eleven people and injuring eighty-five. Minutes later a second explosion—a truck loaded with two thousand pounds of TNT—flattened a three-story secretarial school, incinerated passersby, and destroyed the rear half of the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Two hundred and thirteen people died; at least five thousand were wounded.

Twelve of the dead in Nairobi were US citizens. A hexagonal brass plate honoring the memory of Staff Sergeant Kenneth R. Hobson II, USDAO Nairobi, was added to DIA’s Memorial Wall. Staff Sergeant Hobson was survived by his daughter and his wife, who gave birth to their second daughter eight months later.

I was shaken. In the Christian faith, the image of a mother and child represents the union of divinity and humanity. But what if terrorists saw me and my baby as symbols of a hated adversary instead?

Nothing like that would happen in Moscow, I told myself. We weren’t even in a Cold War anymore.


“That was gunfire outside—did you hear it?” I asked Rick. “I don’t think this is a drill.”

Colonel Simone, the Army attaché, ordered us back inside the office. I hunkered down behind a column near the first row of desks with Tom, another assistant Army attaché.

We’d been told in the schoolhouse that the first burst of gunfire in a terrorist attack was likely to be followed by an explosion. And I knew that the klaxons and PA system couldn’t be heard clearly in the apartments. I dropped to the floor, elbow-crawled to a phone, and called David.

“Terrorist attack,” I told him, keeping my face toward the carpet in case the windows imploded and showered us with glass. “Take Will, get in the kitchen, and get down. I love you guys.”

“Roger. Love you too.” He hung up. I took shelter with my colleagues in a short passageway near the hallway door to wait.


An hour after Paula texted me, I gave up on my work- in-progress and sat glued to the news feed. Long-winded legislators kept trying to bring the certification vote to the floor. Vice President Pence announced he would not act unilaterally. Trump encouraged demonstrators at the Ellipse to march to the Capitol and “take back our country.”

Outside the Capitol, thousands of shouting men and women pressed against the flimsy barricades. Police officers, inexplicably not wearing riot gear or carrying tear gas, punched at some of the demonstrators to no effect. Men in black and camouflage mowed over them and climbed the terraces leading to the entrance.

On the Capitol lawn, some of the protesters had brought a gallows. They chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!”

The word “sedition” bubbled into my consciousness.

MOSCOW: MARCH 24, 1999

Like its former ally the Soviet Union, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—six ethnically and religiously diverse Balkan republics united after the Second World War—had dissolved early in the 1990s. The republics of Serbia and Montenegro, which shared historical and religious ties with Russia, remained united under genocidal dictator and war criminal Slobodan Milošević.

Our arrival in Russia in 1999 coincided with the failure of peacekeeping efforts in Serbia’s Kosovo region. The Serbian army had slaughtered almost nine thousand Kosovars, the majority of whom were Muslims, and displaced more than eight hundred thousand. Believing that the conflict threatened to boil over and ignite violence elsewhere on the continent, European members of NATO advocated for military intervention to force a Kosovo peace deal.

NATO air strikes on Serbian targets began on March twenty-fourth.

Within hours of the first reports, Russians gathered outside the US embassy to protest. The demonstrations spilled from the broad sidewalk into the boulevard. Passing cars honked in support; our ears rang with chants of “Yan-kee OUT! Yan-kee OUT!”

The Regional Security Officer told us not to give the demonstrators the satisfaction of looking at them out the windows. The sight of a human face might incite greater violence. But even the colonels and the Navy captain sidled up to a window to sneak an occasional peek.

Seven floors below us, elderly pensioners paid by the Communist Party carried red flags with the hammer-and-sickle of bygone days. Ordinary Russians wearing dark coats and carefully maintained shoes carried long banners and waved the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia flag. Skinheads made threats and threw things. Eggs cracked and yolk dribbled down windows. Bottles smashed into fragments on the sidewalk. Paint cans sloshed red, yellow, and blue smears down the white and gold chancery façade. When someone scored a good hit, cheers erupted.

Americans like to believe that a US embassy serves as a shining beacon of freedom and justice. At least some of the Russians demonstrating below us on the street saw instead an evil adversary, a nation of wealthy aggressors, murderers of innocent Serbian children, perhaps even the source of their own personal and economic disempowerment.

We were ordered to stay indoors and away from public places until further notice.


Police discovered weapons and pipe bombs near both the Republican and Democratic parties’ national committee headquarters. Security guards evacuated Vice President Pence and Speaker of the House Pelosi. The House and Senate finally adjourned and went into lockdown. Members of Congress watching from the gallery above the House floor, uncertain of their evacuation route, sheltered in place.

I’d been safer in Russia than those legislators and their staffs. And law enforcement planners should’ve anticipated that situation. Anyone with basic security training and a social media account knew to expect violent right-wing demonstrations that day. Friends who’d risked COVID to attend every Black Lives Matter event in the capital had urged everyone they knew to stay home. They deemed the risk of an encounter with their fellow citizens more hazardous than the virus.

Two hours passed. I’d planned and participated in hundreds of security drills, afloat and ashore. Where was the police backup? The riot gear? The tear gas grenades? The DC National Guard?

One man broke a window, climbed through, and opened the Capitol building to rioters. Another carried the Confederate battle flag, the symbol of a treasonous rebellion, through the halls outside the Senate floor. The words “insurrection” and “sedition” and the phrase “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” now played on an infinite loop in my mind’s ear.

I didn’t want to engage in Russian-style conspiracy thinking, but couldn’t help wondering who’d written the security plan for the day.

MOSCOW: MARCH 28, 1999

The Sunday after the anti-NATO demonstrations, temperatures rose to a balmy fifty degrees and the streets around the embassy compound were quiet. I showered while David took Will out to the baby swings on the playground: Our son’s wide smile and giggles on a sunny day encapsulated all that is good and right and pure in the world.

I heard the gunfire over the sound of the water in the shower. On the playground, David assumed it was a car backfiring—a frequent occurrence in Moscow. Then Marines ran through the compound in battle dress, shouting for everyone to take cover indoors.

Three men had driven up Novinsky Boulevard in a stolen car. They stopped in front of the old chancery building. One jumped out and attempted twice to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the building. Nearby Russian police opened fire on him but missed. The assailant dropped the grenade launcher on the street, grabbed an automatic rifle from the car, fired eight shots at the Embassy, and absconded. No arrests were made.

The choice of a rocket-propelled grenade telegraphed the assailants’ message. In September 1995, during a period of heightened US-Russia tension over NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo, someone on the far side of Novinsky Boulevard had fired an RPG at the embassy. The armor-piercing grenade had flown over eight lanes of traffic, blasted a hole in the chancery wall, and exploded directly below the DAO offices. No Americans were injured.

The sole casualty was “Big Bertha,” the communications center photocopier. Like service members and first responders who cope with trauma through dark humor, the General Services Office staff hung a plaque commemorating her sacrifice on the wall above the place where she once stood.


Both Lieutenant Colonel Zvezdan Opačić and I must have slept through the class on diplomatic relations. We didn’t realize that ties between the US and Yugoslavia had been severed when NATO began bombing Belgrade, and didn’t know we weren’t supposed to talk to each other at receptions. After a pleasant twenty-minute chat, I invited him to lunch.

Awkward phone calls back to headquarters in Washington and Belgrade followed, but we got permission to meet in a Serbian restaurant near the Mosfilm studios. I listened, wondering if Zvezdan had personally killed any Kosovars in his previous assignment, while he talked for three hours.

His family had been in Belgrade during the NATO bombing. His young children still awoke screaming from traumatic nightmares about falling bombs. I tried to assure him we hadn’t targeted residential areas and had worked hard to prevent civilian casualties. I told him about the RPG and the bullets that put eight holes in the façade of the chancery but might instead have found my husband and son on the embassy playground. I said that Kosovar children, as vulnerable and dear as our own, shouldn’t have been orphaned and killed. We agreed that no children should suffer nightmares about bombs, or lose their parents, or die in wars. That all countries should work together for peace.

We’d ordered our meal as official representatives of two adversarial countries recently engaged in military hostilities; by the time we paid the bill, we’d shed our symbolic shells and connected as two human beings—parents who loved our children, who wanted a more peaceful future for all children, who were willing to take risks to promote peace. That connection allowed us to serve as a conduit for careful messages: Our countries were ready to resume diplomatic relations. Our lunch was the first official contact between our countries since the NATO bombing campaign had begun.


The demonstrations outside the embassy failed to affect US policy. They fizzled out due to lack of interest, entertainment value, and rubles in the Communist Party’s slush fund. The General Services Office painted over the colorful smears on the chancery. MVD guards posted around the perimeter of the embassy compound were recalled.

Then on the eighth of August, a bomb exploded in a Moscow underpass and killed thirteen people.

Three weeks later, a bomb killed one person in the Okhotny Ryad shopping mall.

The next month, apartment buildings started blowing up at night.

Between the fourth and sixteenth of September, bombs exploded at four apartment complexes: the first in the city of Buynaksk in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, two in Moscow, and one in Volgodonsk. More than three hundred Russian citizens were killed and a thousand injured.

The Russian government blamed the bombings on militant Chechen separatists, who denied their involvement. Former members of the FSB—the Russian security service—claimed the FSB had staged the bombings as a casus belli for renewed military operations in the Republic of Chechnya.

Some embassy personnel dismissed the idea that the FSB had set up the bombings. No responsible modern nation allows its state security services to murder innocent citizens in their beds just to pick a fight with a tiny breakaway republic on its distant periphery. Symbols have whatever meanings we give them; what significance could such a small, impoverished republic, torn to shreds in an earlier bid for independence, have for a large nation like Russia?

Azeri rug merchants and Tatar watermelon vendors from Astrakhan read the signs. Fearing to be mistaken for Chechens, they disappeared from Moscow’s markets and street corners.

On September 23, 1999, Russian war planes began dropping bombs on the Chechen capital of Grozny. The following spring, a former FSB agent named Vladimir Putin rode a wave of support for the war into the Russian presidency. In 2006 former FSB agent and defector Alexander Litvinenko, who had blamed the bombings on the FSB, would be poisoned to death in London.

The second Chechen war was far from Moscow. The ambassador prohibited us from traveling within five hundred miles of the breakaway republic, knowing that military attachés would be attractive kidnapping targets. We couldn’t monitor the war in person. But when we heard small arms fire in the embassy courtyard in January 2000, we remembered we were representing America to a country fighting a civil war.


Two colonels, two majors, and I jammed ourselves into the short entrance hallway to put a wall between us and the windows. We sat with our knees almost touching our noses and waited to see if we would survive whatever was happening outside.

Two armed Marines, a young man and young woman, burst through the door. They shouted “Gangway!” and leapt over us like standing broad jumpers.

We wondered aloud if someone had planted a car bomb outside and if the RSO or Russian police had competent explosive ordnance disposal technicians. German prisoners of war had built the chancery—then an apartment building— during the Second World War; if a bomb exploded outside, tons of reinforced concrete and the steel vault on the eighth floor would come down on our heads.

Novelty, adrenaline, and training suppressed my fear, but I did wonder how long I’d remain conscious if the building collapsed and how much it would hurt to be crushed to death.

My four colleagues probably had similar thoughts, so we made jokes and told stories: Rick and Tom complained about being under fire wearing business suits and no sidearms while the two colonels told us “war stories” from their earlier tours of duty in Moscow.

One of the colonels had been present for the 1991 “August Coup,” where where hardline opponents of President Gorbachev’s reforms staged a coup and attempted to assault the White House, the Russian parliamentary headquarters building visible from my dining room window. The deaths of three civilians at the barricades ended the attempt. Gorbachev returned to power and the once- powerful Soviet Union dissolved.

The other principal had served in Moscow during the 1993 constitutional crisis—ten deadly days of street fighting. Russian president Boris Yeltsin ordered the Russian parliament dissolved and the White House shelled. The colonel joked about concrete falling over his head from the percussion of the shelling. We laughed nervously.

A calm voice on the intercom called, “Medical Response Unit to Post Four.” This was followed every fifteen minutes by the same broadcast: “Stand by. Stay down. Stay away from the windows.”

I hoped David and Will were playing with toy trucks or reading on the cold terra cotta tile in our kitchen. I wondered what David would tell Will about me someday, and if they had any idea how much I loved them.


Two decades later, staring at the live news feed on my laptop, I couldn’t help comparing the events at the Capitol building in Washington to the 1991 and 1993 Russian coup attempts. Was that who and what we’d become? I’d served twenty years to keep America safe and stable, not to watch it collapse.

Believing that they might be living the final moments of their lives, representatives and senators called their families. Former Army Ranger Jason Crow comforted his colleague Susan Wild. Representative Pramila Jayapal knew that no matter how she was dressed, her dark skin—an indelible symbol of her immigrant heritage—might lead to her death if rioters discovered her. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wondered if she would live to have children.

Former US Army sergeant and Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman understood the danger he faced from white supremacists in the mob. Determined to protect legislators carrying out their constitutional responsibilities, he confronted the leaders anyway, and led them away from the entrance to the Senate chamber.

The insurrectionists eschewed the Constitution’s call to collective responsibility—“We the People of the United States”—in favor of selfish demonstrations of their supposed personal liberties and rights. One demonstrator sat in Speaker Pelosi’s chair, his aggressive act symbolizing disempowerment of a woman who (in his mind) embodied some nebulous threat to his status, freedom, and power. Others called the Capitol “our house,” evoking themes of property and ownership, in addition to political and personal entitlement. Those who brought a gallows to the Capitol signaled that they held themselves above the laws embodied in the Constitution, not accountable under them. They threatened elected representatives—mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, loving grandparents, their fellow citizens—with extrajudicial murder.

The legislators survived. But US Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick did not. After defending the west terrace of the Capitol, the legislators trapped inside, and the Constitution, he collapsed and died.

Another name, another ultimate sacrifice, engraved on the wall at the National Law Enforcement Memorial.


A Marine corporal slammed our office door open, stuck his head in, and asked for a head count.

“Five, all accounted for,” said the Army attaché. “No one injured.”

The intercom rasped again. “The situation has been secured. We are waiting for an ambulance to remove the casualty.”

We called headquarters, the Pentagon, and our families. Two inebriated Russian mili-men (internal police) had climbed over a chain-link fence in an area between the upper and lower embassy compounds not covered by security cameras. They found the ambassador’s armored car idling in the upper courtyard while the driver ran an errand in the motor pool. They jumped in for a joy ride. The Russian guard in the courtyard security booth attempted to stop them; the mili-men chased him back into the booth and began ramming it with the car.

The Marine on duty in the lobby called for backup. The booth began to crumple under the assault, threatening to crush the Russian guard trapped inside. The gunnery sergeant in charge of the Marine detail, whose biceps were about the same diameter as my waist, tried to smash the driver’s side window of the car with the butt of his rifle. The glass didn’t break.

The Regional Security Officer authorized deadly force.

Those were the shots we’d heard.

The young Marine who took the shots was evacuated that same night to a friendly Western country for his safety in the event of retaliation. The mili-man who drove the car survived, but the disabling bullet nicked his spine and left him a quadriplegic. His mother would have to care for him for the rest of her life.

We exited a side door to avoid the ambulance crew in the courtyard. For a few minutes, we took deep breaths of the frosty air and made jokes to release adrenaline. Rick and I sobered quickly, though. If we hadn’t been clowning around during lockup, if the colonels hadn’t pulled Rick into a conversation, if the elevator had arrived at the seventh floor sooner, we might have been run over by the mili-men. Caught in the gunfire. Witness to the final shot. Names engraved on a hexagonal brass plate.

Marines in riot gear, posted every thirty yards along the walkway to the lower compound, remained ready to defend our few acres of US territory in the center of a foreign capital with their lives if necessary. To defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We stopped to thank each one personally.


Attaché duty in a US embassy overseas confers a solemn, heavy responsibility on the officers and noncommissioned officers so assigned. You don’t always notice the weight when you’re climbing the pilot ladder up to the bridge of a visiting US naval vessel, or laying a wreath at a memorial sacred to the memory of allies lost in a terrible war, or slugging back fifty grams of vodka and drinking to the bottom during the toast made to those lost at sea. It’s an honor and a privilege to be chosen to represent the United States of America to our allies and to our adversaries; most days, that’s how it feels. But when my tour in Moscow ended, I still felt the weight of that responsibility slide off my shoulders. I was grateful to slip out of my representational and symbolic role, and back into my other, more human ones: garden-variety naval officer, intelligence watch floor operations chief, wife, mother of two boys, daughter, sister.

Those sensations returned when I watched events unfolding at the Capitol on January sixth: the rush and clarity of adrenaline; the peculiar and awful realization that this thought or this word might be my last on this earth; the gravity of serving as a representative not just of myself and my humanity, but of my country and everyone in it; the pressure of knowing that a mob outside the walls or a man with a grenade launcher might hate what I represented badly enough to kill me, to destroy symbolically the ideals and abstractions I embodied. For those hours, I also wrestled with the phrases “sedition” and “insurrection” and “all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and I wondered if America had become the collapsing Soviet Union of 1991 and 1993.

I thought about the oath the legislators locked down in the Capitol had taken, essentially the same oath I took when I joined the Navy. I thought about the constituents they were representing. I thought about the abstract ideas, beliefs, and intangible truths that our elected officials embody. I knew some of them might die that day because too many Americans had been led to see them as venomous denizens of a swamp filled with muck and reeking of corruption.

And I thought about Zvezdan sitting across the table from me in a restaurant in Moscow; about his children, my children, the Kosovar children, living and dead; about the opportunities that present themselves when we’re able to make genuine, human connections; and most of all, about the terrible cost of seeing each other only as symbols.

Jerri Bell

Jerri is the Managing Editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. She retired from the Navy in 2008; her assignments included antisubmarine warfare in the Azores Islands, sea duty on USS Mount Whitney and HMS Sheffield, and attaché duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia.

Her work has been published in a variety of journals and newspapers, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She and former Marine Tracy Crow are the co-authors of It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan; her book on the first African American women to serve officially in the US armed forces is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books.

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