As Kevin M. Kennedy entered an elevator at the United Nations in New York on Aug. 19, 2003, his cell phone flashed a text message from a colleague in Baghdad: "Car bomb, car bomb, Canal Hotel."
That afternoon, Kennedy, a senior U.N. relief official, was on a flight to Amman, Jordan. By the following morning, he and a reinforcement crew were on the ground in Baghdad, where a suicide attacker had rammed an explosives-laden truck into the hotel that housed the U.N. headquarters. Among about two dozen people killed in the attack was Kennedy's boss, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. envoy in Iraq.
Kevin M. Kennedy, a retired Marine colonel, assessing the situation in Baghdad after the bombing of U.N. headquarters on Aug. 19, 2003. As a Director of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, he shuttles between crises.
(Lionel Marre -- U.N. World Food Program)
Kennedy, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who served in Vietnam, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf War and Somalia, among other hot spots, was used to turning on a dime, assembling support teams and traveling across multiple time zones to destination disaster. In Baghdad, Kennedy took charge of the cleanup, calming relatives of the victims and reporting on the operation.
Kennedy remembered de Mello as a caring individual who would drop everything on his crammed schedule to devote himself wholeheartedly to a crisis. "He gave people his full attention, showed keen interest in their stories and followed up with them. He could be negotiating with heads of state one minute, and devoting himself to the case of a cleaning lady in Kosovo who needed to get out to a safer haven the next, with the same intensity," Kennedy said.
He could have been describing himself.
After a recent day of briefings on Capitol Hill to update staffers on the latest pressing need for aid, Kennedy reflected on his path, from Lansdowne, Pa., to director of the Coordination and Response Division of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
After graduating from West Chester University and receiving master's degrees from George Washington University and the Naval War College, Kennedy thought he wanted to be a lawyer. He ended up joining the Marines and serving for 25 years.
Under Gen. Anthony Zinni, he served as staff commander and ran a coalition force made up of Americans, Germans, Belgians and Italians. A food aid mission in 1992 put him in touch with nongovernmental organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Zinni asked Kennedy to be liaison officer with a combined U.N. force in 1993. "At the time, I knew more than others what NGO stood for and how to work with them," he said.
Before long, the United Nations asked him to come on board. Kennedy accepted the call and retired from the Marines. "It was not an easy decision or transition. I am still a Marine. You are a Marine for life. However, I liked to work in an international setting, responding to disasters, man-made and natural, and just like in the Marines, it is field-oriented work," he explained.
The United Nations, he joked, was another nonprofit organization.
By the time he switched to the United Nations, Kennedy, his wife and four children had moved 14 times, including seven in a 10-year period. They currently reside in Bronxville, N.Y.
Kennedy now works with Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, who criticized the United States and other donor countries for being "stingy" in their development assistance after the tsunami last month. Kennedy praised Egeland for drawing attention to the suffering in Darfur in western Sudan at a Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva.
His biggest challenge now is staving off crisis fatigue. "In Sudan, even Afghanistan, the whole issue of humanitarian assistance is that you have to be able to maintain a longer attention span. It is really hard in the heat of another crisis -- Iraq and the tsunami are examples," he said. "Take the forgotten conflict in Uganda with strange characters running Christian slavery or Somalia, which has had no real government or central authority for 13 years."
So how do you sustain interest in these forgotten places? "By being tenacious, creative and persistent. You have to be straightforward, factual and candid," he said. "You can give up. But what's the point of that? You have to remain solidly faithful to the mission."
Although the relationship between the United Nations and Washington can be tense, Kennedy emphasizes its importance: "I think humanitarian assistance is in many ways about restoring human dignity, which everyone needs and everyone deserves; it is about restoring the ability to hope. Everyone has the right to eat, the right to a safe environment and the right to health care. This is not just something pursued by the U.N., but by the ICRC, the United States, NGOs and other nations," he said.
"When it comes to humanitarian problems, the United States has a leading voice," Kennedy said. "We find the people we deal with in the administration ready to listen as professionals. . . . The United States is a lead donor, but many countries may not want to work under one country, but under the U.N. banner, so the U.N. remains the best suited to tend to the world's unresolved problems. I know it sounds like a cliche, but if the U.N. did not exist, you would have to invent it."