Is Peace Corps entering the Red Zone?

 

If you are a football fan and your team (Broncos!) has the ball and is in touchdown range, then the Red Zone is a good thing. Any other time and place, the Red Zone means heighten risk and danger. I think Peace Corps is entering such a Red Zone. This is why.

Four of the most egregious crimes against serving Peace Corps Volunteers occurred during a time of transition or anticipated transition from one political party in power to the other. The extraordinary number of political appointees in the Peace Corps agency and the always rapid staff turnover due to the Five Year Rule may have contributed to reduced support to Volunteers during such times. http://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/policies/PC_Final_Evaluation_Report_on_Impacts_of_the_Five_Year_Rule_IG1205E.pdf   (Please note: That Peace Corps has adopted one recommendation and now appointments are for five years, not two 30-month appointments. But they are not staggered to provide continuity)

Four crimes over more than thirty years do not a pattern make, nor are these by any means the only crimes against serving Volunteers. What they do is highlight the inadequacy of the agency’s response associated with a time of political transition. Sadly, we now must add Volunteers who suffered from inadequate medical care during and after service to this tragic roll. Again, these are not the only Volunteers and RPCVs who received inadequate medical care, but the instances also highlight what may happen during a time of political transition.

Deborah Gardner(Tonga), Richard Starr (Colombia), Walter Poirier III (Bolivia), and Kate Puzey(Benin), are the crime victims. These are the crimes.

In October of 1976, PCV teacher, Dennis Priven, murdered Deborah Gardner, a fellow PCV teacher in Tonga. Priven was tried and convicted in the host country courts. The sentence could have been death by hanging. However, Peace Corps intervened and persuaded the Tonga government to release Priven into the custody of the United States government, with the understanding that Priven would be committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. Priven was returned to the US in January of 1977, the closing days of the Ford administration. For whatever reason, when Priven refused to be hospitalized, he was allowed to simply walk away from the Peace Corps agency. He suffered no criminal penalties.  Gardner’s family was not even notified of his release. Perhaps the crime, here, was not the actual murder, but the release of the criminal.  Phillip Weiss, investigative journalist, has written of this tragedy in his book, American Taboo. Read an excellent review of the book, by RPCV Bob Shacochis at: http://www.salon.com/2004/07/20/weiss/

At almost the same time, February 11, 1977, the insurgency group, FARC, kidnapped PCV Richard Starr, a botanist serving in Colombia. Sam Brown was the new Carter appointment to head up the federal agency ACTION. Peace Corps was only a subdivision of that agency but did have a Director. However,

the Director of Action was in charge. Neither the Peace Corps nor the State Department were successful in securing Starr’s release. He was held for three years, before columnist Jack Anderson was able to privately arrange ransom and Starr was finally released. (See: Remember with Honor http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/2019711.html)

The year 2000 was another year of political uncertainly. The Democrats had been in power for eight years. The Electoral College vote to determine Republican Bush was not declared the winner until December of 2000. Again, Peace Corps had an Acting Director. Sometime February of 2001, Bolivian PCV Walter Poirier III went missing. Peace Corps Bolivia had lost track of Poirier. Despite the efforts of his parents and the belated response of Peace Corps, Poirier is listed missing, still. http://www.sentinelandenterprise.com/local/ci_17551094

In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency and the Democrats took over the White House after eight years of Republican rule. All political appointees at the Peace Corps, including the Director, resigned on January 21st 2009. The acting Director took over. A new Director was not confirmed until the following August. In March, PCV Katy Puzey was murdered in her site in Benin. Again, Peace Corps was criticized for its handling of this crime. The outrage over this crime led, ultimately, to the Katy Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. Provisions in that law are designed to protect Volunteers.

But there is still work to be done. (http://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/policies/PCAC_Annual_Report_2015.pdf

Now we turn to health services. Nick Castle was a Volunteer who died in China, February of 2013. The Democratic President Obama had been inaugurated in January of 2013, but Peace Corps still only had an Acting Director. There was great uncertainty in all federal agencies because of the treat of sequestration as well as government shutdown. A New York article summarized the OIG report that Nick Castle received” “cascading delays and failures in the treatment. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/25/world/report-faults-care-of-peace-corps-volunteer.html?_r=0)

Meghan Wolf was a Volunteer serving in Malawi when she became sick in the Spring of 2008. Her mother recounted Meghan’s  problems first as a serving Volunteer. Meghan was medically evacuated in June of 2008. The problems continued as Meghan tried to obtain medical care for service connected medical problems. Her ordeal continued through the transition from a Republican administration to a Democratic one. PeaceCorps had an acting Director until August of 2009.  Her mother described the attitude she encountered:

“Each phone call placed to the Peace Corps was only answered half the time, making it extremely difficult to get proper authorization for doctors appointments, medical tests, and lab work. This is not to mention the added headache from dealing with the absolute rudeness and extreme nastiness of the federal government workers assigned to help Peace Corp workers navigate a broken system.”

(http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/one-mothers-story-of-how-the-peace-corps-failed-her-daughter/)

What can be done? I think there must be legislation to provide continuity of services and support to Volunteers and RPCVs regardless of the political dynamics.  Representative Poe is interested in proposing legislation to further protect Volunteers.  I intend to email his staff with my suggestions.  Here are their emails:  Please send to: Luke Murray Luke.Murry@mail.house.gov
and Blair Bjellos Blair.Bjellos@mail.house.gov

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