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On the job in Iraq, making a difference Williamsville grad answers call of duty

Dan Foote takes a helicopter to work, travels with armed bodyguards and oversees multimillion-dollar humanitarian projects.

And while it may sound like a page out of the rich and powerful, you might want to think again.

The 1981 Williamsville East High School varsity football captain, who began his career with an Ivy League degree in economics, works as a U.S. career diplomat in the midst of his second assignment in Iraq.

"I'm back here because I don't want my kids to have to come here in the future," said the former defensive end, who stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 230 pounds. He believes democracy is the best defense against the spread of terrorism.

Serving in southeast Iraq close to the Iranian border, the State Department employee supports the administration. But Foote has a history of wanting to make a difference, fueled by his spirit for adventure.

Several years after graduating from Columbia University, he gave up his New York City job as a natural gas broker and joined the Peace Corps.

His assignment took him to the Andes mountains, where he worked from 1992 to 1994 in Bolivia overseeing construction of water systems, schools and residences. Before he left there, he also found love and married a Bolivian woman, Claudia, from the city of Sucre.

After that, he moved back to the United States and worked as a high school Spanish teacher and football coach near San Francisco. But the world kept calling to him, and in 1998, he joined the State Department and resumed his quest to make a difference.

"Things have vastly improved since I left Iraq in July 2007. At that point, Fallujah and Ramadi were by far the most dangerous cities on the planet," Foote said in a recent telephone interview from Iraq. "Since February, I've walked the streets of both cities, commerce is bustling, and it's a much more permissive environment."

But don't misread that assessment.

Iraq remains a hazardous place. Whenever Foote travels, it's not in a shirt and tie, but in "tactical gear," which includes lots of Kevlar and a contingent of military personnel.

Loud sounds make him jittery.

"I don't know that I'll ever like loud noises again," he said, referring to the exploding mortars and rockets that were much more common during his first tour in Iraq.

Foote says there's no question Iraq is on the road to democracy, which, in large measure, he credits to the leadership of Gen. David Patraeus.

"I've had the distinct pleasure of sitting in numerous meetings with General Patraeus, and he is one of the sharpest, most charismatic, decisive visionaries I've been around," Foote said.

Violence between rival factions, lack of education in the overall population and an exodus of Iraq's professionals all contribute to the challenge.

So a top priority, Foote explained, is nurturing Iraqi institutions into entities able to govern and deliver essential services to citizens. That includes sewage and water systems, electricity and transportation.

There are other challenges, as well -- reconciliation and helping local leaders grow accustomed to governing in the country's 18 provinces, which is in sharp contrast to the former central government.

As a result, Foote's work involves building diplomatic bridges.

"Reconciliation means taking the provincial government and different political factions, tribal leaders and militia leaders, and getting them together to work for the future of Iraq," he said. "In some areas of the country the Iraqis have made incredible progress to that end."

But Foote says he worries that it could all fall apart, if the United States withdraws its support.

"I draw the analogy to a business. You don't close the business just as it turns the corner and starts to show a profit," he said.

Foote will continue to have a front-row seat to see what direction U.S. policy takes under a new administration after the upcoming presidential election. He says his assignment in Iraq continues until June.

After that?

The 45-year-old husband and father of two children says he looks forward to returning to Buenos Aires, Argentina, the location of his last assignment, and rejoining his family there.

"I'm going to watch my daughter graduate high school, and then we'll take a vacation," he said.

Foote makes a point of returning to the Buffalo Niagara region once a year.

He says it helps him reconnect to his roots through simple pleasures -- chicken wings, beef-on-weck and football.

"I live and die by the Buffalo Bills."


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