A worldly perspective

GMG alum enjoying work in diplomatic service

Diplomatic Security Service Regional Security Officer James Ulin, right, a Green Mountain native and former Marshalltown police officer, is pictured with the Dalai Lama. Since taking his position with the State Department, Ulin has been posted in several foreign countries, most of them in Asia. – Contributed photo

As a kid who grew up in Green Mountain, graduated from GMG High School and took his first job out of college not far from home at the Marshalltown Police Department, James Ulin could never have imagined just how much of the world he would end up seeing in his life.

Ulin, who is currently posted as a Regional Security Officer (RSO) with the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, made a dramatic career change in 2006 when he first applied for a post with DSS, and it’s been an incredibly rewarding choice.

“I’ve had the opportunity to kind of travel the world. It’s quite a bit of a different job experience than being a local police officer,” he said.

As the war in Iraq heated up and Ulin decided it was time for a change, a friend recommended he look into applying with the DSS, which he had never even heard of before. After going through all of the processes, he was offered one of a limited number of available positions, and the new journey began with a posting at the Miami field office.

“When I took this job and I didn’t know where we were going to live, I literally signed up and said ‘I’ll live anywhere,’ and we just moved to D.C. and started training with no idea where we would be five months from then,” he said.

At that job, Ulin focused on visa and passport fraud as they are often connected to transnational crime and terrorism, and with his background as a police officer and detective, he felt his skills translated well to these types of investigations. Other key objectives of the DSS include protecting foreign dignitaries who are visiting the U.S. and providing security at U.S. embassies and consulates in other countries.

After Miami, Ulin got his first real taste of international travel — he had only been to Canada once before taking the job — when he was posted with a provincial reconstruction team in Iraq for a one year term in 2008. From there, he moved on to an assistant RSO post in Tashkent, the capital of the central Asian country of Uzbekistan, for two years, and then to Kabul, the capital of war-torn Afghanistan, in 2011.

Once his year in Afghanistan was up, Ulin spent about a year learning Russian and took on a post in Kyiv, a city currently at the center of the global spotlight, from 2013 to 2015.

“It’s a difficult situation and tragic for the world. And it’s difficult for me to watch,” he said of the situation there.

From Kyiv, Ulin left for a domestic posting in the United States for about a year and then returned to Asia as the RSO in Lahore, Pakistan. He then returned to the U.S. again to serve as an agent in charge for dignitary protection, worked as a deputy regional director overseeing posts in Africa from Washington, D.C., underwent Georgian language training and arrived in Tbilisi last summer.

Although he’s spent time in some of the world’s hottest spots in terms of wars and unrest, Ulin tries to stay focused on the task at hand no matter where he is.

“What I can say is the mission of the Regional Security Office and all its personnel is to provide for the safe conduct of diplomacy wherever we are. While the atmosphere does impact that and certainly the location does, our job remains relatively the same,” he said. “It is to manage security programs and to make sure that the environment is safe for our diplomats to conduct diplomacy that’s in the interest of the United States government.”

Because of Georgia’s close proximity to both Russia and Ukraine, Ulin isn’t currently at liberty to discuss the U.S. Embassy’s efforts with regard to the ongoing conflict between the two countries, but he did say that the mission is still to push for diplomatic solutions.

Ulin will be eligible for retirement in the next few years, but he hopes to complete at least one and maybe two more postings before hanging it up and returning stateside for good.

“One of the very interesting things about this career path is that no day is the same, and no posting is the same. Things change every couple of years,” he said. “You have the opportunity to move to new and interesting countries, to learn new languages and you don’t know what those countries or languages are going to be until it’s time to move on.”

As he looks back on what he’s accomplished so far, Ulin is proud of what he’s done and the fact that he’s experienced so much of what the world has to offer. When he first accepted the position, he’d never even seen the coasts in his own country.

“It has been a real blessing to learn about and be exposed to so many different cultures around the world. I’ve been in more than 50 countries, and it really is a learning experience — something that’s helped me grow as a person and as a professional,” he said. “It’s not just been a professionally rewarding experience, which it has been, but it’s also been personally rewarding for all of us.”

Ulin contrasted his own memories as a student at a small high school like GMG with those of his children, who have attended schools internationally and met friends from all over the world. His job, he said, has also given him the opportunity to share positive stories about the people of various countries when he returns to the Midwest.

“It was new to me, but it’s a change that I’m glad I made and something dramatically different than my time growing up as a police officer,” he said.