Is the Peace Corps Now on the Scrapheap of History?

Watching the event this afternoon, Monday, July 15, 2013, where the President and  former president George Bush, honored an Iowa couple as part of Point of Light Awards, I was struck again how the Peace Corps has been cast aside by the current cast of characters in Washington. Obama wouldn’t even meet with RPCVs during the 50th celebration, and here we have been ‘volunteering’ for 50 years, way before 1989 when George H.W. Bush talked about “points of light” in his inaugural address. Bush said he wanted citizens who make a difference through their volunteer work. Hello!25419157ac4cab17370f6a706700214d1

What about us?

RPCVs, some 220,000, have been volunteering since 1961, and continue to ‘do good’  in the world, as well as at home, fulfilling the Third Goal of the Peace Corps Act.

One reason Marian and I wanted to focus part of website on Third Goal Projects is because RPCV projects NEVER get any recognition, not from the White House, not from the Peace Corps.

In fact, the president won’t even meet with the RPCVs two years ago at our 50th Anniversary. I’m told it was because a woman in Vice President Biden’s office didn’t want the White House ‘associating’ with the likes of us so soon after the death of the Kate Puzey (Benin 2007-09) and the ABC program that showed how the agency had screwed up. The Peace Corps was ‘bad news’ for the White House’s image.

I have nothing against Points of Light (some of my best friends work for it), and I have nothing against this retired Iowa couple, who have just been honored, as has their community, for making sandwiches for hungry children in Africa. But listen, making sandwiches for African kids isn’t going to change the world.

Here are two quick examples of how RPCVs, and their projects, ARE changing the world. Both of these projects were started by Ethiopia RPCVs, both of them were written up in a recent Herald e-newsletter, the newsletter of Ethiopia & Eritrea PCVs.

Many displaced Eritreans have found themselves in difficult circumstances having fled their homeland. The America Team for Displaced Eritreans founded by John Stauffer (Eritrea 1966-68) has come to their aid providing financial and logistical assistance both in the U.S. and abroad.

Bob Gausman, (Ethiopia 1970-72) writes about a water project in Ethiopia initiated by members of his group. He just returned from his fourth trip to Ethiopia in the past seven years. The purpose of the trip was to look for possible sites for water improvement projects.

These are just two examples of many more Third Goal projects in Ethiopia. And there are countless other RPCV Third Goal projects in countless other countries.

When all is said and done the real value of the Peace Corps will be in what RPCVs do after their years overseas as they continue–for the rest of their lives–their involvement in their second home.

Yes, we won’t be recognized by the White House; we won’t be recognized by the Peace Corps agency, but RPCVs don’t give a s***.

They’ll do it for themselves and for the people and nations where they served as volunteers.

And Marian and I are going to do our best to let everyone know about it.

Send me information on what you are doing. And call the White House and say: I was a PCV, and I vote!

John Coyne


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  • John, you’re right. I watched the ceremony in the East Room of the White House pacing back and forth as the incredibly valuable moment to urge national and community service ticked away with no mention, yet again, of the Peace Corps. I remember a similar event under Peace Corps director Mark Gearan when President Clinton held his announcement of the Presidents Summit for Americas Future that would include all the former presidents in Philadelphia and honor service. Gearan, an expert on positioning, made sure that the Vice President Gore not only invited Peace Corps’ senior staff to the event, but had each of them introduced with their Peace Corps titles at the top of the grand event. Peace Corps’ history and impact on the national and community service movement is integrated into just about every service organization working today. Why should we be laying low when service at home and abroad is as important today for our nation as ever?

  • I don’t disagree with your assessment, but I would like to offer a slightly different perspective. Peace Corps is closely associated with President Kennedy. “Points of Light” is President Bush I ‘s special project. It may be that the intent was to keep the spotlight on the aging President Bust.

    We should have insisted on a “peaceful battle hymn.” After all, we have been to the “Halls of Montezuma” and the “Shores of Tripoli,”and a hundred other places where the Marines wouldn’t dare go.

    The pr folks and their political bosses are Peace Corps are busy trying to “rebrand” the agency, in my humble opinion. That is why there is such an attempt to deemphasize the history of Peace Corps.

    For example, the “traditional” two-year PCV – are labeled as people who are not as well trained as the more glamorous and better trained “Peace Corps Response.” Earlier Peace Corps programs have been
    designated “classic” as opposed to today’s “modern sophisticated”Peace Corps.

  • Plus, we went to the “Halls of Montezuma,” the “Shores of Tripoli,” and all those other places, unarmed and without a band.

  • In 1965, I attended the first Conference on the Returned Volunteer. At the time, the number of RPCVs was less than 5,000. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara addressed the conference and said: ” . . . I am indebted to each of you. We have three and three quarter million people in the Defense Department today but I doubt very much that we have influenced the peace of the world as much as the small handful of you in this room and your colleagues have.”

    Twenty years later, I attended a U.S. TGIF party in Niamey, Niger. A handful of young men sported T-shirts with a profile of an automatic weapon and stencil-style letters that read: Peace Though Greater Firepower.

    It appears that in the arena of War and Peace, results don’t count as much as the business model.

  • I was still in Colombia at the time of the first and ONLY Conference of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. We were able to read about it in TIME magazine. The write-up concentrated on RPCVs who were having a hard time “readjusting.” It describes “re-entry syndrome.”
    The article was not particularly flattering to Peace Corps.

    There are three events, I think, that devastated the future of the Peace Corps. The first was the assassination of Kennedy, the second was when Shriver, almost immediately afterwards, went to work for Johnson and was only at Peace Corps HDQS part-time; and, then, finally the Vietnam War.

  • JOEY: I agree.

    JOHN: In February, you ran comments I wrote after hearing “A Musical Remembrance of the Life and Service of John F. Kennedy” that premiered at DC’s Kennedy Center for the Performance Arts. (A full orchestra accompanied almost 350 choristers from eight choirs.)

    That night, I wondered: Why had so many no-charge seats remained empty during such a marvelous salute to JFK?

    The choral performance highlighted JFK’s grand vision and the wide range of his aspirations for America. Yet probably one-third of the concert hall seats were vacant. I could only surmise that “the aura surrounding JFK — and his Peace Corps — seems to be fading away. Or at least what inspired us older RPCVs back in the ’60s and ’70s (and perhaps even later) may be growing dimmer.”

    Many of us who were shocked by JFK’s assassination 50 years ago this November have themselves quietly passed on. Other momentous occasions have been headlined, not the least of which was the election (and reelection) of America’s first black President. Like history, the attention of newer generations has moved on.

    Meanwhile, the spirit of international voluntarism that inspired the Peace Corps 52 years ago is being matched by the Thousand Points of Light program started 24 years ago. We should welcome the fact that voluntarism continues abroad and in the U.S.

    Okay, I agree: Few media stars, national opinion leaders, or those in today’s political leadership pay tribute to our Peace Corps. Nonetheless, new PCVs are assigned to posts every season. As for the likelihood that PCVs and RPCVs no longer dominate the limelight – well, how many of us, who traveled to our posts and did what we did month after month – how many did it for headlines?

    At the same time, as I also wrote in February: “Let’s hope that the book literature produced by so many RPCVs and articles about the Peace Corps — such as what John and Marian Haley Beil are now putting online — will bolster the legacy, even prolong the spirit that may rekindle the kind of vision and willingness to work for peace that once moved the Congress and certainly touched and motivated so many of us, so long ago.”

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