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When the World Went Into Lockdown, He Brought Americans Home

For his leadership role in bringing home more than 100,000 U.S. citizens stranded abroad in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, a Fordham Law alumnus working for the State Department is up for an award often called the Oscars of government service.

Ian Brownlee, LAW ’85, and 28 other federal employees are finalists for the 2021 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, or “Sammies,” according to a May 2 announcement by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which awards the medal.

After the pandemic prompted border closures, flight cancellations, and lockdowns worldwide, Brownlee organized and led a multiagency task force established by the State Department. Over the course of six months, members brought home Americans from nearly 150 countries under the leadership of Brownlee, now the acting assistant secretary for consular affairs.

“We had an unprecedented disaster with a disease shutting down global borders all at once and stranding Americans who needed to get home. We have never dealt with the repatriation of Americans at this scale,” said Hugo Yon, acting principal deputy assistant secretary of state for business and economic affairs, in a statement from the Partnership for Public Service.

The task force faced massive challenges in bringing people home safely in the middle of a pandemic—complex international regulations and procedures, strained relations with some of the countries where Americans were stuck, and the fluidity of travel restrictions, the statement said.

The task force arranged more than 1,000 flights and other modes of transport for Americans in cities, towns, and remote areas around the world. The Air Force was called upon to airlift a 55-member U.S. women’s tackle football team from Honduras to South Carolina. The State Department rented boats for Americans marooned on the Amazon River and sent a bus for American campers at the edge of the Sahara desert, the statement said.

“Ian Brownlee was the linchpin, the leader who pulled everyone together and orchestrated the entire operation,” Yon said.

Brownlee’s team members held conference calls every morning and evening, seven days a week, to share updates and concerns. He also helped brief Congress and the media about repatriation efforts.

‘Head of Mission Control’

He was, in effect, the “head of mission control” who had to deal with “different rules for each sovereign government and balance competing interests from multiple agencies, Congress, and the public,” said Kevin O’Reilly, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

“He was exceptionally good at getting people from ‘no’ to ‘maybe’ to ‘yes,’” O’Reilly said. “He was effective and spoke with authority. He gave folks the space to be effective and when help was needed, he jumped in.”

Brownlee praised his team of “competent, capable people” who “came together to successfully address an unprecedented situation.”

“In a very short order, we had a smoothly running operation pulling people out of difficult circumstances all around the world,” Brownlee said. “Our government worked, expertise paid off, and people stepped up and did things outside their normal duties and got the job done. A lot of people made it home safely.”

Brownlee is a finalist in a new “Sammy” category for the government’s COVID-19 response. Other categories include science and environment, management excellence, and safety, security, and international affairs. Winners will be announced in the fall.

Also, all finalists are eligible for a People’s Choice Award to be announced in July after members of the public cast their votes.


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