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SEOUL — When Sherman L. Grandy joined the Army, he’d never considered the foreign service as a career.

“I’d always wanted the Army,” he said last week, and that was the course he pursued. Grandy’s Army career included living in Africa, training Nigerian soldiers and working as a foreign area officer in overseas embassies.

So when retirement neared, he decided to take the State Department’s foreign service officer test, which gauges aptitude about economics, geography, history and grammar. He passed, as do only about 10 percent of the 30,000 people who typically take the free, daylong test.

But a few months later he failed the oral test, a full day of group discussions and in-person interviews that test a candidate’s ability to digest information quickly, build consensus and react decidedly in crises.

Luckily for Grandy, and thousands of others like him, the foreign service officer corps encourages people to try again and again. It also rewards people for additional schooling, foreign language abilities and starting a new career later in life.

It even pays for this life experience — starting salaries take into account years at other jobs, even non-federal ones, according to Grandy and Todd Bate-Poxon, who both work at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and are former servicemembers. Veterans get special treatment at the State Department; their prior experience boosts them on a very competitive hiring list, Bate-Poxon said.

Fewer than 5,000 foreign service officers serve in Washington and in 256 places around the world, Bate-Poxon and Grandy said during an interview last week. Both said although the competition for the spots is tough, the jobs can be a good fit for those with military experience.

“We (had to) make snap decisions every day in the Air Force,” said Bate-Poxon, who served in that service for seven years. “That experience helped a lot.”

The application process — from testing through in-person interviews to waiting for a slot to open — usually takes about a year, they said.

Foreign service officers process U.S. visa applications, tackle global economic and health issues and help Americans work though problems in other lands.

Like the military, the job includes overseas housing and schooling for children, said Bate-Poxon and Grandy.

But unlike the military, most foreign assignments don’t include American-based health care or military shopping exchanges such as in South Korea and Japan. Hardship tours, where the economic or political atmosphere is more unstable or the climate more harsh, currently are voluntary, Bate-Poxon said.

But wherever the officers go, the two said, they’re expected to study the language and learn at least enough to process a visa application.

The work environment also differs from the military, with fewer staffers on hand to do more tasks. With less than five years’ experience, Grandy was assigned to liaison with a provincial government in Iraq, he said.

To prepare for the test and oral exam, both men suggested keeping abreast of current events and using a prepared study guide. They also suggested it’s just one post-military option.

“You can take (the test) now, just to see what it’s like,” Grandy said. “It doesn’t hurt to see.”


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