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John Kerry Addresses State Department Colleagues Monday

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds up his first diplomatic passport he received as an 11-year-old boy while making remarks to employees on his first day at the State Department February 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. Kerry was issued the passport when he traveled with his father, a foreign service diplomat, to post-WWII Germany. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds up his first diplomatic passport he received as an 11-year-old boy while making remarks to employees on his first day at the State Department February 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. Kerry was issued the passport when he traveled with his father, a foreign service diplomat, to post-WWII Germany. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- New Secretary of State John Kerry reported for duty Monday, acknowledging that as Hillary Rodham Clinton's successor he has "big heels to fill" and promising to protect U.S. foreign service workers from terrorist attacks overseas.

On his first day at the office in his new job, the former senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate was greeted with loud cheers by employees of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

As the first man in the post in eight years, Kerry referred to his two most recent predecessors, Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, by asking in jest: "Can a man actually run the State Department?"

"I don't know," he answered. "As the saying goes, I have big heels to fill."

Kerry told his new agency's employees that he and President Barack Obama needed their help to make America safer and the world more prosperous and peaceful.

And after noting the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, Kerry said the protection of American diplomats would be a top priority.

"I guarantee you that beginning this morning when I report for duty upstairs, everything I do will be focused on the security and safety of our people," he said.

Kerry, 69, is the son of a diplomat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 28 years – chairman since 2009. He spoke of his childhood time in Germany and learning the virtues of freedom.

As a 12-year-old in postwar Berlin of the 1950s, Kerry recounted how he could have caused a diplomatic incident by riding his bicycle around the destroyed and divided German capital, past the burnt out Reichstag and the Brandenburg gate and – using his first diplomatic passport – into the Soviet-controlled eastern part of the city.

"If the tabloids today knew I had done that, I can see the headlines that say, 'Kerry's Early Communist Connections!'" he joked, before describing more seriously how he explained to his irritated parents why he felt the need to cross the Iron Curtain.

"There were very few people. They were dressed in dark clothing. They kind of held their heads down. I noticed all this," Kerry said. "There was no joy in those streets. And when I came back, I felt this remarkable sense of relief and a great lesson about the virtue of freedom and the virtue of the principles and ideals that we live by and that drive us."

Kerry is likely to spend much of the week reaching out to foreign leaders. Over the weekend, he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the foreign ministers of Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Canada and Mexico.

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