2023 Emerging Leaders

Fletcher Schoen and Jennifer Harkins

Played integral roles in the release of 11 American prisoners wrongfully detained in Russia and Venezuela, contributing to creative diplomatic strategies and delicate negotiations while showing compassion to the families and keeping them informed.

When Americans are wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas, a State Department team works quietly behind the scenes with government officials and other entities to secure their release and support their families. 

Two young State Department hostage affairs officers, Fletcher Schoen, 34, and Jennifer Harkins, 35, are an important part of these delicate diplomatic efforts, playing critical roles in developing the strategies that led to the release of 11 Americans—including Brittney Griner, Trevor Reed and the CITGO Six—held in Russia and Venezuela. 

“The things they are doing together to build out our work are groundbreaking. They are writing the book on how to get things done,” said Ambassador Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. “They are the ones who put in the sweat equity to pull off these stunning recent negotiations.” 

The Brittney Griner and Trevor Reed cases 

Schoen led the development of the negotiation strategy that secured the release of wrongfully detained basketball star Brittney Griner, who was freed from Russia in December 2022.   

According to Carstens, Schoen was the “ringmaster” on the case, working with the State Department’s Russia Desk and other foreign policy officials to develop negotiating points and assess Russian demands. He also met with Griner’s wife, WNBA representatives, and leaders of Black and LGBTQ+ groups to ensure alignment on the United States’ diplomatic strategy.  

Earlier in 2022, Schoen helped secure the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who was wrongfully detained by the Russians for over two years. In that case, he contextualized long-standing Russian demands to State Department leadership, which helped American and Russian negotiators develop the concept of a prisoner exchange to free Reed.  

“He did most of the ground-level work to prepare the case to be taken to the president for a decision,” Carstens said. 

Schoen, an Army Special Operations veteran before joining the State Department four years ago, also led efforts to inform and console the families of those held captive.  

Cherelle Griner said that Schoen earned her trust “when everything in me was saying trust no one.” Throughout, he managed relatives’ desire for a quick resolution when time was needed to develop strategies and negotiate for their loved ones’ freedom.  

“We want to not just bring people back. We want to do it in the way that is most advantageous for the United States,” Schoen said.  

Freeing Americans in Venezuela 

Harkins, meanwhile, played an integral role in arranging a 2022 trade that led Venezuela to release seven wrongfully detained Americans, including five CITGO executives held for nearly five years. Two additional Americans were released six months prior to this exchange—including the sixth CITGO executive—due to the hard work and coordination of Harkins and the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. 

A former Peace Corps volunteer, she negotiated with a country where the U.S. has no diplomatic presence, contacting the detainees through lawyers and family members, and establishing back-channel relationships with Venezuelan officials to revive long-stalled talks.  

Harkins and Schoen both joined the State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs in the fall of 2021. Throughout, they shared information with each other to help make progress on their respective cases. According to Carstens, this collaboration helped create a “learning laboratory” that is developing a new “playbook on how to get wrongfully detained Americans back home.”  

“We bounced ideas off each other a lot and shared what worked,” Harkins said.  

Carolee Walker, the office’s chief of staff, praised Harkins and Schoen for seeking “any opening that might crack the door open to the jail cell.” And she singled out the “consistency and transparency and, above all, empathy” they showed families.  

“They showed a tremendous amount of compassion and a willingness to be available for whatever a family might need,” Walker said. “They also were available to third parties, lawyers and others by communicating in a meaningful way.”