MOSCOW - Jim Pettit's early years were spent in Hamburg (Iowa, not Germany). Today he lives in Moscow (Russia, not Iowa).

The 48-year-old North Dakota native moved to Hamburg when he was 7, Council Bluffs when he was 15, Ames and Iowa State University after high school, and Washington, D.C., and cities worldwide after he finished his formal education.

Today Pettit heads the United States' largest consulate - a staff of 50 Russians, mostly clerical, and 20 Americans - providing passports, visas and assistance to U.S. citizens living or traveling in Russia. Pettit majored in Russian and international studies at ISU.

"I actually got a job where I use my majors," he laughed.

Pettit said he was always interested in language and chose Russian because it was different. "I looked at French and Spanish and German, but I wanted to do something unusual."

He is on his third Russia/Soviet Union stint. Pettit's also worked at consulates in Mexico, Taiwan and Vienna and served as consul general - or department head - in Vienna and his current Moscow assignment.

He traveled as a boy, too, although the distances were shorter.

Pettit's dad, John, was a Presbyterian minister and his church assignments led to a few changes of address. Jim's last stop on his pre-college life was in Council Bluffs, where John was pastor at Gethsemane Presbyterian Church.

"I went a year to Hamburg High School and spent my last three at Lewis Central," he said. Pettit picked up his diploma in 1974 and headed for Ames.

His first post-college positions were low-level banking jobs, he said. Pettit's breakthrough year was 1981 when he got a position with the State Department and also walked down the aisle with his one-and-only wife, Nancy. "It's not unusual for people entering foreign service to marry," he said. "Leaving the country pushes you to make a decision."

Pettit's initial foreign assignment was in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he served from 1981-83. He moved up the State Department ladder, bidding his way to different assignments in different countries.

"Most tours are for three years," Pettit said. "You can ask for an extension, but I usually applied for a new assignment."

The process is competitive and Pettit said it's a matter of what is available when you are looking.

His current assignment began last year. It marks the third time he has called Moscow home, but the country has undergone dramatic changes between his tours there.

The consul general's first Russian assignment was from 1983-85, before the Soviet Union's collapse.

"Relations were bad between the United States and Soviet Union," Pettit said.

He said most Soviets had a hard life. "They had very little exposure to the outside world and little freedom. People couldn't travel to other countries, and it was difficult to travel within the county."

When Pettit returned in 1992 - a year after the U.S.S.R. was disbanded - the economy was the same, but he noticed people had a lot more freedom.

"There was advertising in the newspapers, the Communist banners and slogans were gone, and people were allowed to travel freely," he said.

Pettit also said there was a free flow of television programs and movies, which had been tightly controlled under the Soviet system.

Today, Pettit said, Moscow is a big bustling city, with a population more than 10 million. "It is becoming more and more like a normal European city. You can get anything you want."

The Russian people's increased freedom has meant more work for Pettit and his staff. More travel means more passports and visas. He said about 100,000 Russians apply for a visitor visa to the U.S. each year and about 10,000 apply to immigrate and live here.

"That figure includes about 6,000 Russian children being adopted by U.S. families."

While freedom increased Pettit's workload, so did 9/11's aftermath.

He said increased security has led to increased precautions worldwide.

"We now have to interview almost all who want a visa," he said. Small children, elderly and diplomats are excluded, Pettit said. Additionally, appli- cants have their fingerprints scanned and names run against a data base of suspected terrorists.

Pettit said no Russian has been denied a visa for terrorist concerns, but some have been denied for other security reasons. "Organized crime connections is one example," he said.

Pettit notes that the denial rate has dropped significantly as conditions improve. "It is usually an economic reason that makes them want to leave," he said.

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In addition to investigating and tracking visa requests, Pettit said a big part of the consulate's job is assisting Americans who are in trouble or distress.

"We help citizens who are arrested, imprisoned, have medical emergencies, are mentally ill or destitute, or who are crime victims," he said. "We had an American murdered here not too long ago."

Pettit said while his office cannot defend U.S. citizens accused of crimes, it works to ensure their rights are protected and they are treated humanely.

"While here Americans are subject to Russian law," he said. He notes that, generally speaking, Americans are charged with crimes that would also be crimes in the United States.

Pettit said it is interesting to meet Americans overseas and assist them. "It has also been very interesting to watch Russia change over the last 20 years," he said.

While Pettit has enjoyed his Moscow experience, not all his memories are pleasant.

"We were here in 1993 when Yeltsin (former Russian president) disbanded parliament, and there were rebel troops across the street from the (American) embassy compound," he said. "The Russian troops guarding the embassy fled and we could not leave."

Pettit said he and his family, including his children who were then nine and six, were secured in an underground bunker with other embassy employees for two nights.

"There was lots of gunfire," he remembers.

Pettit has two years left on this Moscow tour. He thinks he will make another move at that point, but he's not sure where. "It really depends on what assignments are available."

But no matter where he is, Pettit said he'll be sure to come back to the Midwest.

"I have a brother who is an attorney in Omaha, and we get together at least once a year." He said his parents are retired and living in Arizona, and they come, too.

"I was back in September for Hamburg's homecoming and Popcorn Days," Pettit said. "It was a great time. That's Hamburg, Iowa, not Germany.

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