To destroy the Peace Corps, first, destroy its history.

Dr. Vanessa Kerry is the daughter of Senator John Kerry. She has created a partner ship with Peace Corps Response to send doctors and nurses overseas. Kerry was interviewed on NRP about the new Peace Corps Response program. (Read the transcript of the interview at: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/09/18/161381770/a-peace-corps-for-doctors-built-by-a-senators-daughter In describing the program, Kerry stated:

“The Peace Corps doesn’t have the technical capacity to do clinical medicine and nursing,” Kerry says. “But they do well at deploying people in a sensitive, integrated way.”

This is outrageous. Peace Corps nurses have served with distinction and courage for over fifty years.  Doctors have also served as Volunteers, although not nearly as many. John Coyne reports that Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet is contacting NPR for a correction.  It is good that Hessler-Radelet is on this.

No one doubts  the great need for doctors and nurses in the developing world, so the effort to provide them certainly should be applauded.  However, Kerry’s ignorance of Peace Corps history speaks to a real problem.

Kerry’s work is in the field of international health. She directs a global health program at Harvard Medical School and works at the Center for Global Health at Massachusetts General.  But, because she is ignorant of the role Peace Corps nurses and doctors have played; she has never used their cross-cultural experience in her programs.

Although Kerry lives and works in Boston and her father, Senator John Kerry has certainly availed himself of the Kennedy mystic, she evidently has never visited the JFK Presidential library.  If she had, she would have found over 400 oral histories by RPCVs.  (See: http://206.16.132.90/RPCV/RPCV-FA.pdf) A quick check showed 12 oral histories by medical personnel; beginning with Drs. Mary Frantz and her husband Dr. John Frantz who were Volunteers in Afghanistan, 1968 to 1970 and ending with R.N. Sara Williams, a nurse in Peru 2008 – 2009. The interviewees chose to do the oral histories.  The interviews do not represent any kind of statistical sample.  One can assume, however, that each nurse or doctor was in a training group with other medical personnel. It was Robert Klein who started the project to retrieve and preserve these personal histories of Volunteers.  The Peace Corps agency disassembled its in-house library years ago.  But, these  are  sources that Kerry could have tapped.

Kerry could have contacted Dr. Christopher Doran a Volunteer who served in Botswana starting in 2008 and worked in HIV prevention. He is the author of a humorous look at his time: Africa Lite.  Or, she could have read the classic 1966, Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps edited by Peace Corps Icon, Dr. Robert B. Textor.  The case study: “Nurses in Tanganyika” still has relevance, today.

Didn’t anyone tell Kerry about the heroic Peace Corps nurses of the Dominican Republic?  When a civil war erupted in that country in 1965, Peace Corps nurses stayed their hospital posts, treating the wounded of all sides and earning universal commendation for their courage. Their action demonstrated to a sometimes cynical Congress that Peace Corps did work.

Finally, I see a major transition for Peace Corps. Kerry negotiated a partnership with Peace Corps Response.  The transcript of the interview states:

“After persuading the Peace Corps to get on board, she worked with them to got money from the federal government (through PEPFAR, a $15 billion program to fight HIV/AIDS) to help pay for the health corps.”

This creates a two-tier system within Peace Corps.  The doctor and nurse Response Volunteers who enter via this Global Health program will be reimbursed up to $30,000 per year of service with privately raised funds* to pay off their student loans. Peace Corps Volunteers, with medical educations,  who enter via the regular program and commit to two years service receive no such help.  That is inherently unfair.

And I wonder if anyone said there are no nurses and doctors in the Peace Corps because they couldn’t afford to serve.  I wonder if that was the basis to award these financial incentives.

*(This has been corrected.  Originally, it was written that federal funds would be used to help Volunteers in this program.  That was in error.)

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  • There are different kinds of history. Former volunteers and staff usually write memoirs which can be important historical records of a moment in time in one specific place. However, when trying to make sense of a worldwide program over a half century a different kind of historical summary is required which relies upon the study of both memoirs and official records. In the case of nurses and doctors, AIDS changed everything. Rumors abounded that PC volunteers were infecting populations via innoculations. At that point, no more inocculation campaigns involving volunteers were undertaken. I do not find this memory loss unusual. In recent years, many even deny that the PC ever was involved with building (community development), ignoring that it was the largest contingent of volunteers in Latin America (at least), from 1962 until 1968. It was still a vibrant contingent in 1975 when I first arrived in country.

    For those who are upset by this memory loss- do something! Go do your homework and write a book. Congress has never mandated the PC to write its own history nor would it be a very good book anyhow. It would be propaganda.

  • Lorenzo,

    There is a difference here. This is not a program ABOUT Peace Corps. This is a program WITHIN Peace Corps Response. There are excellent memoirs ABOUT Peace Corps, but this specific program is justified by a lie. The lie is

    “The Peace Corps doesn’t have the technical capacity to do clinical medicine and nursing,”

  • Like always, I take your comments very seriously, Joey. The program you describe sounds like what Aaron Williams and Kevin Quigley spent one full year talking about all over the country. I heard their description of the 21st century Peace Corps in Santa Barbara, California in 2010. The idea was to save money and remove duplication between NGOs.

    Most Peace Corps history books tend to emphasize presidential administrations since the volunteers work at the pleasure of the president. What would be useful would be a survey of Peace Corps’ volunteers work across the globe and over one half century. The nature of the work changed as did how it was accomplished. Sometimes, the changes were re;ated to domestic politics, other times to international politics and sometimes to funding.

    This sort of book could also use first-hand accounts (memoirs) to bolster examples. Reports to congress would be useful. Individual memos and letters probably would not be very useful, unless they include precise instructions from someone in a position to change policy worldwide (ie: the president, the director). Memos and letters from lower level employees often lead to arguments about relevance. This is common in court cases.

  • Lorenzo,
    You are a writer. But, what you are describing is an archive and a library, not a book. Research, both historically and anthropological, demands a complete, as well as a chronological record. Your book,
    “Peace Corps Chronology” is a excellent statistical record, but every year you describes calls for a whole archive category of information.

    Congress should have mandated that Peace Corps keep records.
    Without such records easily accessible to the public, Peace Corps history will be rewritten and falsified to fit the mood or need of the moment. Much has been lost.

  • Thank you for your interest and your compliment, Joey. For years I’ve jumped up and down waving my arms while explaining, “I’m a writer.” My family and friends have consistently shrugged their shoulders and advised me to keep my day job. The I.R.S. has always pointed to a line that says something about income equaling work category. Meanwhile, my employer has always advised me not to use their time and equipment for hobbies.

    What I described above would be a large book. It would describe what volunteers actually did (by work category) and explain how and why this changed over one half century. The book would help our descendants. I doubt that most volunteers would find it satisfying since it would lack that personal adventure element. The audience would be extremely narrow: people interested in the history of the Peace Corps program.

    John and Marian have done an incredibly great job describing the Shriver years but they only represent about ten percent of the history. Likewise, most PC history books explore the 1960s and 1970’s.

    I have to go now. My wife is hitting my hands with a rolled up newspaper and ordering back to a paying job…

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