Durangoan and former diplomat Laurie Meininger helped to jail a Congolese warlord, re-establish civil security in Iraq and restore Sierra Leone’s health systems after an Ebola outbreak.
Diplomatic service was a second career for Meininger and her husband, Ray, who previously worked in health care and took an outsider’s perspective to the U.S. State Department, which had been historically male, pale and educated at Yale University.
“We were part of a generation of regular Americans serving,” she said.
Meininger enjoyed sharing the experience of regular Americans with citizens of other countries, helping to dispel myths about the U.S. and build relationships.
In one case, she told villagers in Sierra Leone that if she came back to see them, she would bring her granddaughter. The next year, she kept her word.
“I didn’t show up with a car full of stuff or bags full of money, but I kept my word as a person, and I think that’s the opportunity that I loved as a diplomat ... engaging with people in that way,” she said.
She was also a visible female leader in cultures that discriminate against women.
In Iraq, while leading an effort to re-establish civil police forces, she often was the only woman in a room of members of the foreign ministry, police force and intelligence service, she said. She demonstrated how women could contribute in forceful, powerful and smart ways.
The Meiningers’ son, Jason Meininger, said his parents were drawn to difficult assignments such as Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and thrived in challenging circumstances, such as civil war.
“My parents saw that as the greatest opportunity to make the biggest difference,” he said.
Meininger and her husband decided to move overseas while living in Sonoma, California, a community with very little ethnic or cultural diversity to expose their son to life outside the wealthy community.
At one point, she was driving by the high school parking lot and noticed that cars on the students’ side of the parking lot were nicer than those on the staff side, she said.
“We wanted to expose him to the bigger world and to know that as lovely as the community of Sonoma was, and still is, it’s not the entire world,” she said.
So they packed up their family into one suitcase apiece in 1988 and moved to the Marshall Islands, between Hawaii and the Philippines. Ray Meininger had been a non-clinical hospital administrator and was hired by Mercy International Association to train a Marshall native to run the country’s health system.
During that time, they learned they loved living abroad and learning the local language, culture and joys of the people.
While living in the Marshall Islands, their son was hit by a drunken driver, and they medically evacuated themselves to Hawaii while he healed.
Five years after the accident, Ray Meininger joined the State Department to manage facilities and was assigned to Cameroon in 1999. Laurie applied the next year to be a consular, a professional who works on foreign policy objectives and provides services to Americans in the State Department.
Her wide-ranging duties included organizing evacuations during civil war, issuing birth certificates for diplomats’ children, visiting arrested officials and interviewing local citizens who wanted to travel to the U.S.
As a consular in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Meininger helped organize the arrest of warlord and then-vice president Jean Pierre Bemba, who needed her help to travel to the U.S. During Bemba’s trip in 2008, he was intercepted, then tried in international criminal court.
She also negotiated the release of U.S.-held hostages with a warlord in the Congo, her son said, which is a testament to her toughness.
“For her to go toe-to-toe with a warlord ... that’s not somebody that I would argue with,” he said.
During Meininger’s assignment in Baghdad from 2012 to 2014, she was the State Department’s liaison between the departing U.S. military forces and the civilian security and judiciary. She led a team of about 200 people, including American police professionals, who were working to educate the Iraqis on police practices, such as how to deal with domestic violence and how to include women in security forces.
The program was dismantled after five months because tolerance of U.S. military presence in Iraq waned, she said. She went on to focus on a program to educate the judiciary about international standards of law, such as detainees’ rights, trial schedules and sentencing.
Her final assignment was as deputy chief of a mission in Sierra Leone, the ambassador’s second in command, after the Ebola (virus) outbreak. She coordinated seven federal agencies and worked to maintain the health security of the country and the rest of the world, she said.
“It was a little heady from time to time,” she said.
While in Sierra Leone, she lost her husband, Ray, who died in an accident. His death prompted Laurie to retire from the State Department after she finished her assignment.
She is now the executive director of the Shanta Foundation, a nonprofit that works with rural villages in Myanmar on economic and social development. At the foundation, she continues the work she felt most passionate about while at the State Department.
Amid a recent push for nationalism, Meininger strongly believes in helping nations develop.
“Our partnership doesn’t solve all the problems in a country, but why wouldn’t we want to continue to help and invest in nations that are working to help themselves. That’s just in our greater good. ... When we turn our back on a nation, we run the risk of that nation failing in a way that affects us.”