The Peace Corps & ABC 20/20 – part 1

As many of you did, I watched the ABC 20/20 program last Friday night that included a segment entitled “Scandal Inside the Peace Corps: Investigation into whether the Peace Corps puts women into dangerous situations.”  I felt a great deal of sympathy for those involved – Katie Puzey, who was murdered March 12, 2009 in Benin, her family, and the RPCV women who stepped forward to tell their stories of being attacked while serving overseas.

And to see Katie smiling out from the past in a homemade video shot by her cousin who visited her site only months before the brutal murder was breathtakingly sad.

I also felt very sorry for the Peace Corps’ new deputy director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, who endured endless 20/20 questions: “What did the Peace Corps Administration know? When did they know it?” Carrie was unable or unwilling to answer anything. It appeared by the end of the long interrogation that the Peace Corps Deputy Director was a woman who had been left to hang out to dry by the agency. I know Carrie was interviewed for two hours, but only snippets of her answers made it to the final edit. Nowhere was it mentioned that Carrie, too, had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, or that she has devoted her life to raising a family while working internationally in the non-profit world.

The Deputy Director has a difficult job, but unlike others top administrators of the agency, she stepped forward to be interviewed about events and circumstances that took place 15 months before she was appointed to the position. She played the best hand she could.

Indeed, this wasn’t Carrie’s finest moment with the Peace Corps. Nor has the handling of Katie Puzey’s murder been the finest hour for the agency.

The Peace Corps screwed up in Benin, and in Washington, D.C (both in handling Katie’s murder and in handling this interview). It isn’t the first time the Peace Corps has screwed up administratively, as well we know from our own experiences, and it certainly won’t be the last. But what is most troubling is that a PCV died because of the carelessness of agency employees who were responsible for her wellbeing.

Let me also say – and all of us RPCVs know – that, in the Peace Corps, Volunteers are for the most part on their own. It is what the Peace Corps is all about. We live with the host country nationals, obeying the rules and regulations and customs of the host country. It is not easy. And at times, as it was in Benin, it can be dangerous and deadly. That is why being a Peace Corps Volunteer is the toughest job you’ll ever have – and at times it is without the love.

[End of Part One]

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  • It had to be easier back in the earliest days. Everywhere we went, from cities to jungles (and I mean fifty canoe miles upriver from Palime, Togo) there were kids with JFK T shirts–all yelling: “Jack! Jackie! America! We love you!”

    Who was the distributor? We never found out; but JFK was everywhere and the US was loved everywhere.

    Things changed after Viet Nam, et seq.

  • Nice piece, John. I hate to concede to my mother’s theory that the world is meaner than it was–I just think that we know about evil quicker– but there may be some truth in her opinion. Americans were better liked in the 50s and 60s than they are today. Still, I had a fight with a man on a bus in Ethiopia, but mostly because of his sense of privilege, which I didn’t ascribe to.

  • 20/20’s piece attacking the Peace Corps was so sensational and one-sided, I have trouble taking it seriously. Katie Puzey’s cousin’s knowledge of Katie’s last thoughts and actions the night she was killed are not questioned. The fact that the criminal investigation is not in Peace Corps’ hands is not raised. In what way is the teacher colleague accused by Puzey a Peace Corps employee? How was the email content leaked to his brother, the PC manager?

    In that it draws attention to the potential danger of living in a place so different than one’s homeland, it has value. Some, maybe all, of the responsibility for placing Katie and the volunteer who was gang raped in situations they themselves perceived as threatening, belongs to Peace Corps. But, your point, John, about the PC experience being what one makes of it, of being on one’s own, rings true. Can women live alone in such places without intolerable risk?

    And who will explain the high number of reported rapes and these women’s sense that they did not receive help afterwards?

  • While researching government reports for my tiny reference book (Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010), I noticed that the oft-cited 15,000 volunteers was only true for one year out of fifty. For this reason, I calculated the yearly average by decade and included a graph in the appendice. During the 1960’s, the average number of volunteers in the field was just over 11,000 per year. Interestingly enough once the number of volunteers surpassed 10,000, the Peace Corps began to recieve complaints about volunteers not adapting and getting into trouble. The root of the problem was a lack of work. It might not be such a bad idea to cap the number of volunteers at 9,500 until the agency retools for more.

    When I met Aaron Williams at a Santa Barbara shindig, we just talked about Chicago. Then I asked him where he would like me to mail his complimentary copy of my new book about the agency. He referred me to his assistant, out in the hall. So, away from the suits and necklaces, his assistant and I had the opportuniy of speaking more openly. I mentioned the rape problem.

    “Oh. The numbers have improved. It’s no longer a problem,” he said and I realized that what we have is institutional denial. This is and has been a reported problem since 1992!

  • The Peace Corps had problem volunteers from the beginning. In one country the PC Office issued a notice telling Volunteers not to park Peace Corps vehicles in front of bordellos. And there will always be problems no matter how many volunteers there may be. The bottom line is that the Peace Corps has never reached JFK’s dream of 100,000 in the field. Since the Peace Corps started 50 years ago, the US military has had constantly at least half a million of its people stationed around the world . No surprise many more foreigners have met an American in uniform rather than in civies.

  • I served in PC Kenya in public Health sector and I did not watch the 20/20 piece until later when my Aunt called and said I had to see it, she said it reminded her of my service. I wasn’t rapped but had a plethora of security issues and had to take matters into my own hands. I had a stalker who the family I was serving encouraged and helped. People would break into my house stealing things, my “supervisor” would listen to my phone conversations, made women of the village walk everywhere with me. Turns out the family I was working for were criminals and didn’t want me talking to other people from the village to find out. I contacted PC to complain and ask for a new sight they sent out a Kenyan National who told the family all my complaints and concerns and then left me there. I did more research into the family and luckily for me there was a male volunteer and a trusted National living close by to help me get out of my location, against PCs rules. The family arrived with machetes and forbade me to go, my national friend returned with men of his own ans I had to chuck my stuff out of my house while surrounded by my friends guards. The PC was pissed I left without any further word from them but the first chapter in the handbook on safety is that you must take care of yourself. I returned home early and could not complete my service and returned home with PTSD.

  • It appears that the rate of rape of female PCVs is approximately 40 times the U.S. rate over the last ten years. I doubt if this has much to do with politics, but would think there is a correlation to PC selection, training, site placement, and security. I was in Korea I (1966-8)and do not remember any training relative to safety issues then, and I wonder whether women PCVs received special safety training. One has to remember that in that time, the PC was a pretty loose organization, and quite naive. Apparently, this hasn’t changed, with the result that very young women often are still sent alone to isolated locales and told to be strong, not complain, and take care of themselves. Easily said, but they were supposedly under the protection of the US government. While the PC men went around in male- dominated cultures with relative ease, thousands of our sisters were being cavalierly sent off by a PC administration that was criminally negligent.

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