Consular official is on call for global emergencies involving U.S. citizens


Michelle Bernier-Toth, 52, stands in front of mementos she has collected during her time at the U.S. Department of State. She is a finalist for the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America medal. (Jabin Botsford/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 15, 2012

A typical work day for Michelle Bernier-Toth begins at 4:30 a.m when she reaches for the Blackberry on her bedside table. Her thumb will scroll a string of e-mails that have come in overnight — a typhoon over the Korean Peninsula, an agreement with the Russians over adopted children, the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

As managing director of overseas citizen services for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, Bernier-Toth is prepared for almost anything that might affect the well-being of Americans around the world. In times of crisis, natural or man-made, it’s her job to help U.S. foreign embassies and consulates prepare and react.

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.

While this year has been relatively quiet, she said, 2011 was defined by crisis after crisis. Uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia required evacuating thousands of American citizens and their families. She also helped coordinate a response in Japan to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, helping citizens here find family members in Japan, and citizens in Japan fly home.

“That was a 24/7 effort, and she really had the lead on that,” Pettit said.

Hugo Rodriguez, now acting director of the State Department’s Office of Mexican Affairs, worked under Bernier-Toth for the last two years.

“In terms of understanding the issues, understanding how the government as a whole can respond to the needs of Americans in trouble overseas, she knows it all,” Rodriguez said. “Beyond that , as a leader, as a supervisor, she cares so much about her people.”

A framed black-and-white photo balanced on a shelf in a corner of her office shows Bernier-Toth, 12, sitting on a rock amid the arid rubble of the Afghan countryside. The year was 1972, and Bernier-Toth was on a hike with her family.

Her parents served in the U.S. Information Agency, and she spent stints of her childhood in Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, and Morocco before coming back to the U.S. in 1978 for college.

“My parents, because they were in public service, really instilled in me the sense that you should do something for other people,” Bernier-Toth said. “I would feel guilty if I didn’t, becuase that’s what they did.”

Between 1988 and 1996, she worked in the foreign service as a consular officer in Doha, Damascus and Abu Dhabi.

“My goal in life, if I had any goals, was to continue to be able to travel and to be productive while I was doing that,” she said.

Bernier-Toth came to overseas citizen services in 2001, holding a variety of positions in the office. In 2011, she was promoted to managing director.

Bernier-Toth said she struggles to balance her work life and personal life. She’s constantly connected to her BlackBerry.

But she said she does try to find respites away from work. At least twice a year, she will run races — the Army Ten-Miler in October, the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in April. She also likes to draw and make jewelry in her Arlington home.

She’s also raised three children, Sarah Toth, 23, Charlie Toth, 19, Anna Toth, 17. Sarah is continuing the public service tradition, serving in the Peace Corps in Malawi.

Bernier-Toth said her upbringing had a direct result on where she is today.

“You make that personal connection with people, which brings it all to life for me,” she said. “That’s why I do it.”

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