Bernier-Toth handles crises large and small, from Americans who have lost their passports to country-level evacuations.
“The world turns while you’re sleeping, and things happen,” Bernier-Toth said in a recent interview, sitting a small table in her office. “You gotta know what’s going on, be prepared for it the next morning.”
For this daily vigilance, Bernier-Toth has been nominated for the National Security and International Affairs Medal, one of nine Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, which will be awardeed in September to outstanding civil servants by the nonprofit group Partnership for Public Service.
James D. Pettit, deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizen services, nominated Bernier-Toth for the award. “There’s so many aspects to this. We deal obviously with the public, and with loved ones, with congressional represetnatives, with you all in the media, our masters in the state department and other agencies,” he said. “It’s a big, big deal, it’s not an easy job, and what makes Michelle stand out is she has the perfect manner and personality to perform this job.”
Bernier-Toth, 52, is a lean, angular runner with shoulder-length dark brown hair and a tatoo on her right wrist that asks, “Why not?” Standing in her office, she grabbed a small white-and-pink figurine of the Hindu elephant-god Ganesh from India, a dark green malachite sea turtle from Africa, and a multi-colored Russian Balalaika player and a dancing bear companion off a shelf.
“Little bits and pieces of the world,” she said.
The tchotchkes are gifts from people she has worked with, many of whom are stationed around the world. Bernier-Toth has global reach from her office on Pennsylvania Avenue, which she uses to respond to any humanitarian crisis or natural disaster. Her constituency: an estimated 6 million Americans who live overseas and 65 million who travel per year.
Bernier-Toth is responsible for making sure America’s 230 embassies and consulates are reaching out to citizens, so they’re warned and prepared for whatever dangers may arise.
It’s stressful at times, Bernier-Toth said. Some nights she doesn’t sleep. She found that the bigger world crises, such as the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, can have a lasting impact on her health and wefare. The disaster required the evacuation of 16,000 American citizens.
“It took me about two years after Haiti before I got into normal sleep patterns,” she said.