Protecting U.S. Embassies
Roger Thyen led an emergency evacuation of 1,400 embassy workers in Kabul, Afghanistan.
WHEN DIPLOMATIC SECURITY SERVICE (DSS) Officer Roger Thyen (B.A. ’92) was assigned to the American embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021, he looked forward to being able to use his Arabic language skills again. Coming off a three-year assignment in Zagreb, Croatia, Thyen was supposed to be in Afghanistan as the embassy's senior security officer for a full year. But things went pear-shaped quickly.
Thyen was among 20 U.S. Department of State special agents recently honored by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association with its Heroism Award, which goes to a federal law enforcement officer who has risked or sacrificed his or her own life in the line of duty.
As the Taliban began a final push towards Kabul in August 2021, Thyen and his team had 48 hours to evacuate 1,400 embassy personnel, an effort that would normally take weeks. Clearing the embassy room by room and helping employees travel to Hamid Karzai International Airport, Thyen’s team also destroyed thousands of classified and sensitive documents and equipment to prevent them from falling into the Taliban’s hands.
Thyen had come to Afghanistan prepared not just to use his Arabic, but for unexpected contingencies like emergency evacuations. While in Croatia months before, Thyen had taken part in a crisis management exercise that responded to a potential future earthquake in Zagreb. “We went through the motions of bringing everybody together, taking them to the airport, and putting them on aircraft, either on the helicopters or a C-130,” Thyen says.
The Croatian exercise was groundbreaking in terms of scale and complexity, involving both the Croatian military and police, as well as the U.S. Air Force and various diplomatic personnel.
“That’s the purpose of crisis management exercises,” Thyen says, “to come up with something a little bigger than you’re probably going to deal with, so when something does happen, you’re prepared for it.”
Like what happened in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan was one of the more unique evacuations we’ve had in a long time,” Thyen says. “It was the largest noncombatant evacuation operation the U.S. has ever done, and we had to rely heavily on our military counterparts for their assistance in that.
“What set Kabul apart was the sheer magnitude of Afghans afraid for their lives and desperate to get out,” Thyen says. “And then when the bomb went off in August and we lost 13 service members—that put things in a completely different light for me.”
A suspected suicide bombing at the chaotic Kabul airport on August 26 killed a reported 170 Afghani citizens, 11 U.S. Marines, a Fleet Marine Force Navy corpsman, and a U.S. Army soldier, and left many more wounded. According to reporting from the Washington Post, “Nearly 6,000 U.S. service members [had been] dispatched to Afghanistan as Kabul fell, in what would be the greatest test of the Pentagon’s emergency evacuation planning since the Vietnam War’s devastating conclusion decades earlier." The newspaper noted that nearly 125,000 people with U.S. ties were rescued over 17 days, but tens of thousands more were stranded.
Today the repressive Taliban remain in control in Afghanistan, most recently forbidding women to attend university classes. Their rule has resulted in an ongoing humanitarian crisis for the beleaguered country.
Regional security officers like Thyen are federal law enforcement agents working for the U.S. government— in Thyen’s case, the Department of State.
“When we go overseas, we don’t have a lot of the arrest authorities that we do in the United States, for obvious reasons,” Thyen says. “But we’re responsible for the physical personnel and information security for embassies and consulates overseas.”
In his 21-year career in the DSS, Thyen has been in Egypt, Iraq, Bolivia, Pakistan, Qatar, Croatia and, lastly, Afghanistan. But he actually began his career in the U.S. Army, enlisting a year after graduating from the U of M with his bachelor’s in international relations.
“We weren’t in a state of war during my entire time in the service,” Thyen says. “It wasn’t until after I got out and into the reserves that I went back and served in Germany, helping to plan for the 2003 Iraqi invasion as a military intelligence officer.”
For Thyen, serving in Germany was a return home, of sorts. His father—who grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota—had been a counterintelligence agent in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany when Thyen was born. After Thyen graduated from the Munich American High School in 1985, his father was reassigned to northern Virginia, and Thyen decided to attend the U of M in his father’s home state.
Currently, Thyen is the supervisory special agent in charge of the Minneapolis Resident Office, a position he’s held since August 2022.
“We do investigations into passport and visa fraud, identity theft,” Thyen says, “as well as providing protective security for, for example, former Secretary Pompeo when he visits the region.”
Thyen is happy to be back in the States with a desk job, at least for the time being, because his assignment in Afghanistan was his most challenging one to date.
Though he could technically retire now if he wanted, Thyen enjoys serving his country, and remains open to future possibilities. “If the State Department were to offer me a job at a post that’s got a great international school for my kids, I would be hard pressed to say no,” Thyen says. “Though one of the coolest things about this assignment is I get to walk the kids to the bus in the morning and still get to work on time.”
Steve Neumann is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.