September 8, 2004: Headlines: Diplomacy: Ireland: Belfast Telegraph: RPCV Dean Pittman is new US Consul in Belfast

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RPCV Dean Pittman is new US Consul in Belfast

RPCV Dean Pittman is new US Consul in Belfast

RPCV Dean Pittman is new US Consul in Belfast

Baghdad to Belfast
America's new man in Ulster

By Gail Walker
08 September 2004

New US Consul Dean Pittman has certainly - as his fellow Americans would put it - lucked out with his new job in Belfast.

Having spent the past eight months holed up in a 15ft by 8ft metal trailer in Baghdad in the heavily guarded international zone, he has now landed himself a luxurious home and office.

"Mmmmm," he smiles, easing into a gold-coloured armchair, taking a sip from the coffee brewed by the machine he has just had installed, and surveying the capacious surrounds of his room at the Consul's new premises in a Victorian mansion, Danesfort House, on Belfast's Malone Road. "Mmmmn. This is very nice indeed."

Pittman's office is easily the size of a good swimming pool. If he looks up from his desk he might be momentarily startled to see a small, distant, surprised figure staring back. But that'll just be himself, caught in the huge floor-to-ceiling mirror at the far end of the room.

Ardnavally House, his million pound-plus seven-bedroomed official residence, on up the road at Shaw's Bridge, boasts further opulence.

"When I was still in Baghdad the staff in Belfast sent me out a picture of my new home which I stuck on my wall," he explains. "I'd tell myself, 'Look there is a future beyond this.'"

Pittman (46) is a suave, charming, fit-looking man. His style is relaxed, jocular and good-humoured.

Posing for pictures, he quips to the photographer: "Can you take the grey out of my hair?" "That costs extra," parries the lensman.

"Oh, well," he jests, eyeing the snapper's shaven pate, "I don't really care about colour as long as it's up there."

Everyone, of course, now stares intently at photographer's crown and there is a certain edge as he fires back: "This is getting nasty..."

Pittman insists he's "not so good on personal questions, better on policy" but turns out to be surprisingly forthcoming.

Aside from the comfort factor, he reveals he was also glad to be handed Northern Ireland because his maternal great-grandparents are from Antrim, so he feels a true connection with the place.

Though born in Virginia, he was brought up in Mississippi and several times is at pains to claim that state as his own. Later, I work out this is to do with Elvis ("our homeboy") but of that more later.

In Iraq Pittman, was helping establish the new government. He had no television, radio or newspaper, so got through 30 books during his tenure there.

He also had to get used to living with the threat of terrorism on his doorstep.

"There are these insurgents who don't want to see democracy succeed, who would shoot a rocket or throw a bomb or park a car bomb at our gates," he recalls. "It was very random and you never knew when the next one might come. It doesn't take a lot of people to disrupt a society and a few people with a few rockets can do a lot of damage.

"We did have rockets hit the place where we were and I found myself under my desk a few times. When a car bomb explodes or a rocket goes off or a mortar goes off, even if it is half a mile away, it sounds awfully close.

"But it also became part of the day-to-day existence and I think most people just went about their business. Unfortunately you get inured to that kind of threat."

Tell me about it, I say, which brings us to what many see as the US government's rather ambiguous approach to world terrorism. For example, it's war on terrorists in Iraq but terrorists in Northern Ireland have been rewarded, feted and given visas.

"I think in any place, and particularly here in Northern Ireland, you have to look at whether people are committed to the democratic process," reasons Pittman. "Are they committed to pursuing a peaceful conclusion to a difficult time?

"We can certainly get into semantics and arguments about various aspects of that but, when you look at it, do you have people willing to commit to a democratic and open and peaceful process? And if you do, then you have to let that process go forward. I don't think you can do it any other way than that."

But is there any real difference between the human bomb strategy of an Al-Quaida bomber who hijacks a plane or an IRA gunman who forces a civilian Army worker to drive a bomb into his camp, killing himself?

"These are legitimate questions," concedes Pittman. "But I have to go back to what I said before. If people are ready to engage in a democratic process that is transparent and peaceful, then it's our duty to encourage that."

Pittman's great-grandfather left Antrim for Minnesota in the early 1900s: "I don't know why he came there, but that's where he ended up. And I think he couldn't find a wife he liked in America, so he came back to Antrim and met my great grandmother, and then they returned to Minnesota and that's where my grandmother was born. But she would have been a full-blooded - what do you call it? - Antrimite."

TALES of his forebears were handed down to the young Pittman: "We heard little bits of our ancestry when we were growing up and we have always claimed it."

Pittman was born in Virginia, because his father, a navy pilot, was stationed there, but soon afterwards his parents moved back to their native Mississippi, where his father took over a newspaper. Home was Tylertown.

Pittman quips: "The population was 1,998, so when I left it went down to 1,997."

His father, who also wrote a political column syndicated to newspapers throughout the US, would probably have liked to see his son take up the newspaper business. But even while a teenager Pittman was feeling the constraints, insularity and limitations of small town life: "My father started me working at the newspaper when I was six years old, selling newspapers on the street. I then moved up to writing stories, then became the photographer ... so by the time I had graduated from high school I was ready for something else. I felt it was time to move on. My father would have been very happy had I taken on the paper but he certainly also understood there might have been other things I wanted to try.

"And I think when you come from a very small place you have a natural curiosity and an interest in the larger world. You want to see what else is out there. "

After studying at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, he joined the Peace Corps "to get the real deal" before finally deciding upon his career. That took him to a small village in Africa, where he taught English for two years. Afterwards he did his master's at the John Hopkins School of International Studies in Washington. While still there he began working for a congressman from his home state. Since 1989 he has been with the State Department, holding posts in Bosnia, Mozambique, Angola and Guyana. He has also worked on Asia, served as desk officer for Thailand and Burma and is a former director for Balkan affairs at the National Security Council.

"My idea was that I pretty much wanted to see it all," he says.

The closest Pittman has come to laying down roots was seven years ago when he bought an old house in Washington, which he has enjoyed doing up. But it's clear his heart remains in Mississippi. "We have a great tradition of Blues music there and ... Elvis."

Apparently Pittman has been overheard on the Consul premises doing a rather good impression of The King. "Um, I was twisting a little bit the other day ..." he confesses. "Elvis is from Tupelo in the north of the state and we claim him."

His favourite footage of Elvis is the 1968 comeback concert. He has been to Graceland and Elvis' family home in Tupelo, and proudly boasts of seeing him in concert twice - enough to make the ears of that other well-known Presley buff, David Trimble, prick up in jealousy.

"The first time was in 1973, when he came to Mississippi," says Pittman, launching into the anecdote with enthusiasm. "We'd had terrible tornadoes and Elvis was doing two benefit concerts. So I got very lucky and I had a seat in the second row of the Colliseum and I have to say it was not disappointing. I was with a young lady and I had one goal and that was to get hold of one of these scarves that Elvis throws out.

"And I was trying my best but when I found myself pushing over a little old lady I knew I had to stop ...

"That was the first concert he did in Mississippi since he became famous. I think he'd always felt a little cool towards Mississippi because when he was growing up his family were poor and maybe he felt looked down upon as a young boy. But at that concert we were able to show him a lot of love and he came back about eight months later and I was able to attend that concert, too."

Like most Mississippians, Pittman was raised in the southern Baptist church, though he "has not been a very good church-goer" since then.

"There was just a Baptist church and a Methodist church in our town," he says. "There were only about four or five Catholic families and they didn't have a church of their own, so they had to go all the way down to the next state to go to church. So the Baptist church and the Methodist church and the community leaders got together and helped them raise the money to build a church for themselves."

Pittman's father died 20 years ago but his mother, now in her 70s, remains in good health. A keen tennis player, she travels around the state for league matches and can beat her son. Pittman says: "When I first told her I was going to Baghdad she said, 'Oh gee', then there was silence and then she said, 'Well, okay, be careful.' When I left Baghdad I flew on a military plane to Frankfurt and called her from there. 'That's all I want to hear - that you're out of Baghdad' she said."

Pittman is divorced and has no children, "so it's just me rambling around that big house up there." Being single makes it easy to travel but he envies foreign service personnel with families.

"I meet a lot of new people and live in a new house and then I move on and it's just me starting over again," he says. "With a family you take your history with you."

He shudders when asked what his strongest characteristic is, but eventually volunteers: "I've always considered myself an honest person. If I've been here a few years and they can all say, 'He's an honest fellow,' that'll do me."

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Story Source: Belfast Telegraph

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Diplomacy; Ireland



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