May 2, Foreign Service Day, is the occasion of the annual dedication of the Memorial Plaque in the State Department honoring Americans killed while serving the nation overseas. The plaque is maintained by the American Foreign Service Association in the Diplomatic Lobby.

There are actually two plaques. The West Plaque honors the 81 persons killed between the founding of the service and 1967, a period of 187 years. When the East Plaque was unveiled in 1972, criteria for inclusion were changed to omit listing those killed by disease or natural disaster and to include only Americans who serve overseas under the command of an ambassador. The inscription on the East Plaque honors those "who have lost their lives under heroic or other inspirational circumstances while serving the government abroad in foreign affairs." With the addition of five names this year, the total on the East Plaque will be 72.

The individuals to be honored are: Bobby Joe Dickson, Thomas Handwork, Patrick Kwiatkowski and Gregory Weber, all Marine security guards at the embassy in San Salvador gunned down by terrorists in 1985 while they sat in a sidewalk cafe. The fifth, Virginia Warfield, was a USIA Foreign Service officer killed in the line of duty in 1983 during a visit to India by the secretary of state.

Some recent events in which diplomats were killed include: the 1984 hijacking of a Kuwaiti airliner to Tehran, when two AID officials were singled out from the passengers and executed; the bombing of an embassy jeep resulting in the death of two diplomats in Namibia in 1983; the assassination of Sinai Multinational Force leader Leamon Raymond Hunt in Rome in 1984; two separate bombings of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Beirut, in 1983 and 1984, in which 15 Americans were killed; the storming of the embassy in Islamabad in 1979, when two diplomats died.

Surely the time has come for the American people to give up some of the stereotypes about the Foreign Service and its activities abroad. The still-accepted perception of the glamorous diplomat from the Eastern Establishment is far from reality. Foreign Service employees come from the Agency for International Development, the United States Information Agency, the Foreign Agricultural Service (Department of Agriculture) and the Foreign Commercial Service (Department of Commerce), as well as the State Department. They are recruited from all walks of life to represent all Americans.

It is unfortunate that we continue to treat the Foreign Service as the stepchild of our government. American commitments overseas have expanded greatly since World War II, but there has been only a negligible increase in the Foreign Service Corps overseeing those responsibilities. The Department of State has the smallest budget of any Cabinet department. In an era in which we are devoting nearly $300 billion a year to defense, we are spending less than 1 percent of that amount to keep the peace through diplomacy.

The annual addition of names is a signal reminder of the danger of a career in the Foreign Service. In the past 20 years -- a period including the Vietnam war -- more ambassadors have been killed than generals and admirals. More Foreign Service employees have been killed than agents of the FBI. It is altogether fitting that representatives of the State Department and relatives and friends will gather in the Diplomatic Lobby before the East Plaque and pay tribute to those who gave "the last full measure of devotion" to the Foreign Service of their country.