Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned….I ETed!

In those early days of the Peace Corps the greatest sin was leaving before one finished his or her tour. More than one person I know back in Ethiopia in the early Sixties would declare, “I don’t care what happens to me, I’m not ETing!” Now it seems to many PCVs ETing isn’t even a venial sin.

The numbers of PCVs who pack it in before finishing their tour keeps climbing and no one at HQs is blinking an eye. It wasn’t always that way. In the first 22 months of the agency, 294 Volunteers did not complete their tours. Of these, 65 returned for compassionate reasons, usually family illness or death, another 37 had to resign for medical reasons. And sadly, six PCVs lost their lives–four in plane crashes, one in a jeep accident, and one as a result of illness.

The total number to ET during those first 22 months for other reasons was 184, about 4.2% of the number who were sworn in.  Now,ajaxhelperca5zc635 when the agency was established, it was expected that that % would be much higher.  It never was in the early years. Why isn’t the ET number being taken seriously? Today you hear people say, “Well, I’ll give it a try and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll split.”

Perhaps it is too easy to get into the Peace Corps. That might be the reason PCVs come and go.  In the first two years of the agency, more than 58,000 filled out application forms. Of those who made an application, about 25% to 30% –lets say one in four–were invited for Training. Half of those invited (56%) accepted and went to Training. And of those in Training, four out of five went overseas. 

Why then was the Peace Corps so successful in those early years? PCVs weren’t any better than volunteers today, that’s for sure.

In fact, the candidates today are in better health, better educated, more worldly. Before they are out of high school they have been everywhere. Okay, let’s see why the number of ETs were so low in the Sixties in up coming blogs. Stay tuned!. As Arnold would say, “I’ll be back!”







Those were the good ol’ days!


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  • When attempting to report on attritition rates, two problems appear. First, the agency changed its own definition of an E.T. (Early Termination). Second, it later changed its reporting methods. The best I could figure out, by the Fall, 1961 913 young men and women had trained to be volunteers, including you and Marian. The attrition rate (those who entered training but never finished 2 years of service) was 26%, the lowest ever recorded. By 1968, 65% of all young men and women who reported for training never finished 2 years of service. Historically, worldwide attrition rates rise during foreign wars when the U.S.A. is involved. This has even held true recently, post 9-11. The rate has been high almost since the Peace Corps’ inception and the basis for many congressional discussions.

    After years of research and measured contemplation, I have come to the conclusion that volunteers during those first 22 months were recruited for lower than average intelligence and a propensity to follow all commands without question, kind of like little Nazis.

  • and than there were those sent home by the Country Director for behavior unbecoming a PCV…usually sleeping with host country nationals or political involvement!

  • The attrition rate is affected by many factors including; the host nation’s political stability, the host nation’s prevalency of disease and crime, Peace Corps’ funding, Peace Corps’ staffing and most importantly, the host nation’s perception of the Peace Corps. It is very telling that Hessler explained how the Chinese government went to great lengths to call the Peace Corps “U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers” since it had historically labeled PCVs as spies and political lackeys.

    The 9,586 PCVs who served during the Kennedy administration represent about 5% of the total number of volunteers who have served. Since that time, the agency has changed its own recruitment, rules, and even mission many times. For instance, although education has always been an important element, it’s role is very different. Long ago, the Peace Corps realized that trying to recreate our own failing education system around the entire world might not be wise. Community development which used to involve surveyors, civil engineers, architects and planners to aid in construction is now something totally different. Likewise, health has changed. Volunteers are no longer permitted to innoculate against disease. In fact, 55% of all volunteers worldwide spend 27 months handing out rubbers.

    None of this has any bearing on the courage and tenacity of PCVs. It’s just a different world. To imply that the 5% were somehow superhuman, just and deserving of all of our love is insulting.

  • Probably the main reason for EDs is that today most any young American or his family can pay the return airfare. In the early days this would have been a major hurdle.

    As an “iffy” candidate, lack luster college record from a then marginal state university, I surely would qualify for Lihosit’s characterization of early recruits having “lower than average intelligence.” But that Mensa ring on my finger keeps refuting this assumption.

  • As I recall, Leo, the agency paid an ET PCV way home in those early days of the Peace Corps. However, since I can’t on most days recall where I put my car keys, I might be wrong about that fact.

  • As an early PCV (Philippines 62-64) I was pretty much cut off from family and friends and events in the U.S. Airmail took 5 or 6 weeks round trip. Telephone was not available. And of course no email, Skype, Facebook, etc. The Philippines became my world for two years, and the alternative of early termination just didn’t come up for much consideration.

  • When I was in Honduras (2000-2003), the ET rate was about 1/3, including both folks who left during training and others who stayed between one and two years, so their contributions varied. Apparently, there are some benefits for a volunteer who stays at least one year, so some who planned to quit waited until that year was up. Their reasons for leaving varied: frequent illness, homesickness, depression, missing a significant other back home, and deciding to go to grad school, Only occasionally,was it due to an injury or traumatic event and some said that local people just never accepted them–or so they thought. I belonged to a peer support group that tried to help the wavering feel more comfortable and useful to supplement staff efforts and I also tried helping some living nearby with their Spanish. I started a support group for over-50 volunteers; in that age group, most who quit early did so for health reasons. The problem is that whenever someone left, that had a domino effect and others soon followed. Since then,with my Peace Corps talks and contacts, I’ve met many recent volunteers serving in other countries who’ve also estimated that about 1/3 of their training group left early. Obviously, that’s a loss to the Peace Corps, local communities, and the volunteers themselves. John is right, now there is no great stigma attached to leaving early.

  • I have heard over the years, that 1/3 early termination rate was the norm. However, I have not been able to confirm that – still looking.

  • Originally, I was going to include graphics about attrition rates in the appendix of Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010. However, the data is compromised and convoluted and my faith waivered. In the post, I summarized what I found. Many of the annual reports refer to attrition but it is very difficult to compare and contrast since the definition of “Early Termination” changed as did reporting methods and even record keeping. I suspect these changing were intentional to mask the attrition rates. One very detailed analysis of the rates is contained in Michael Sheppard’s study titled “Early Termination in the Peace Corps” (Michigan State University, 2008) which is available on-line. If I recall correctly, the rate was highest during the Vietnam War era (1964-1975) when it fluctuated between 47 and 65%. During my training in Honduras (1975), we were told that the worldwide rate was 60% while the rate in Honduras was 40%. While researching my book, I found a few old reports to congress which were startling. In some nations fraught with disease and war, the attrition rate of PCVs was 90%. Following the tenure of Loret Miller Ruppe, attrition dropped at one point to 30% (nearly the same as those first volunteers. The average rate between 1984 and 1990 was 32%. In 2006, the rate was 35%.

    However, caveat emptor- the definition changes and so does reporting. For years the attrition rate has been based upon estimates. There were intriguing studies about a direct relationship between perceived volunteer safety and attrition. Oh, there was also a strong relationship between Mensas and obstinance.

  • My group, Micronesia XI (71-73) was divided into intended locations. A total of 45 of us destined for Truk (Chuuk) started training. We lost five during training, most of those right at the end. Some self de-selected, others were sent home by Peace Corps. We hit Chuuk with 40 volunteers. A bunch, maybe as many as ten, terminated in the first three or four months. Since we were all educators and the education system was a copy of the American system with a long summer break, nobody left after that early group until another large chunk, maybe another 10 or so, terminated during summer. The rest of us stayed out the full two years except for one who, for reasons not quite clear, just had to leave a couple of months before our term was up. We ended our two years with 20. We were told that Micronesia had one of the highest attrition rates. Ours was 50% if we don’t count training, even higher if we do.
    Don’t know how the rest of Micro XI fared.

  • At least now, the internal culture among volunteers seems to be that quitting is OK, not a big deal, but certainly the Peace Corps does all it can to retain volunteers. Though this is anecdotal, some of my own fellow trainees frankly admitted to joining because they envisioned an extended vacation, Cuerpo de Vacaciones, in a tropical country or because they wanted to improve their Spanish. My own young sitemate ET’d, despite great efforts by PC staff and myself to help him to stay. Though I was a health volunteer and he was water-san, I inherited and finishd his water projects. Of course, there is Robert Strauss’s critique, advocating recruitment of older, more seasoned volunteers, although there are probably not enough of those to go around. PC Response, a shorter term porgram now opened to experienced folks without prior service, may help fill the gap.

  • There is an excellent summary of how Peace Corps defines Early Termination and how its calculations of the rate have changed over the years. Lawrence F. Lihosit references the study in his comments above. I tried to post a link to this PDF article and was not successful.

    I urge you all to “Google” “Early Termination in the Peace Corps,” and you should find these definitions and summary in the article that was posted on Peace Corps Wiki. The article lays out a foundation on which to discuss the larger issue that John raises: How and why have Volunteer attitudes towards Early Termination changed?

    This is my opinion: I think each of us still know best only our time and place in the Peace Corps. So what was true for me may not have been true, at all, for others who served at the same time – 1963 to 1965.

    The most important factor keeping male Volunteers from ETing was the Draft. It may be that many of the first or Pioneer male Volunteers had already completed their military obligation before they joined and it may also be that that was one factor in their selection. But for subsequent men, Peace Corps service deferred their Draft obligation, it did not replace it. So, most of the male Volunteers I knew were afraid to resign because their Draft Boards would be notified within 24 hours and many times they would be automatically drafted. When Vietnam became a shouting war, this fear was far more controlling.

    What kept many female Volunteers from “Eting” were, of course, the
    male Volunteers. I don’t think this was necessarily a bad thing because group ties seemed to be so very strong in the early days….stronger, unfortunately, than ties to Host Country people.

    Peace Corps -non RPCV- staff were horrific in using all kinds of intimidation to prevent Volunteers from leaving and at the same time would threaten Volunteers with termination for various sins…imagined or not. I remember that we were all told that if Peace
    Corps terminated a Volunteer or if one left on their own, a statement would be placed in their “permanent record” that: “This individual is unfit for overseas duty.” Such a statement would make it impossible for the Volunteer to work for any government agency….such as AID or other programs in the State Department.

    But, do read the Sheppard report on Early Termination. I gave up trying to download it for fear I would potentially crash the whole East Coast internet and/or be identified as part of the foreign
    cyber attack. See Michelle, I do read your blogs!!

  • I don’t think that Early Termination is any more acceptable than it was in the beginning. As Tony mentioned in his post, the decision is often laden with regret. Unfortunately, it has been much more common than most realize and the reasons behind it tend to be complex.

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