When he finally obtained a definitive diagnosis in 1996, it was devastating. He had developed PLS, a non-fatal disease that causes the gradual deterioration of motor functions. It is a close cousin of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the illness suffered by British physicist Stephen Hawking, of which the patient eventually dies.
“For a long time I didn’t tell anyone,” Glassman said. “I had never been sick a day in my life, and suddenly they said I had an incurable disease. What do you do with that kind of information?”
He did tell Elana, and she had to adjust fast. Within a few months after their wedding, she recounted, “he went from using one cane to two canes to a wheelchair.” By the time their daughter, Shira, was born, two years later, his speech was badly garbled.
The impact on Glassman’s career was less immediate and more subtle. He had sympathetic patrons, including Edward Gnehm, then director general of the Foreign Service, who he said arranged a series of jobs for him in Washington that did not require competitive bidding.
As his symptoms became more severe, Glassman was also provided with a variety of services, including office renovations and full-time aides. He had a device that read out his speeches and an electric scooter that carried him along the polished corridors of the State Department.
But Glassman wanted more than a sheltered sinecure. He wanted to push the system further, to test its commitment to talented but disabled officers. He also needed to prove his own worth to himself.
“I have almost everything that makes a good Foreign Service officer. I have judgment and experience, I can write well, I’m persistent and I’m patient. The only thing I don’t have is speech,” he said at home one morning, with Elana translating.
“I know I am in a profession where every word matters,” he acknowledged. “But people want to hear what the United States has to say. If I am in a meeting and I am representing the United States, people will listen.”
In 2004, Glassman became a special assistant at a U.S. mission in Vienna, a posting he and his family loved. His supervisor, in a formal evaluation, described him as a “shining example of our country’s values.” His leadership under “extreme adversity,” the official wrote, “puts Jeff above any other FSO I have ever met.”
Back in Washington, though, trouble was building. There were disputes over paying for his travel and housing, and some officials began questioning the risks of sending him abroad. According to Glassman, various jobs he sought either vanished, changed or went to others. The U.S. attorneys’ court filings note only that he held a series of posts in various countries; they do not discuss the process.