by Bill Josephson (PC/Washington 1961-66)
The adequacy of health care for Peace Corps volunteers and former Peace Corps volunteers who have service connected health issues seems to be a recurrent and unresolved problem. The following thoughts are based on memories from 1961 to 1966, and I’ve made no effort to fact check those memories.
The early Peace Corps was fortunate in respect of its healthcare staff because Selective Service still existed, and as the Vietnam War began in 1965, Selective Service became an even more important source of physicians.
A plan that I recall as the “Berry Plan” enabled physicians to meet their Selective Service obligations through public health and similar medical assignments in the public interest.
This meant that the early Peace Corps was virtually assured of the availability of high-quality medical staff both overseas and in Washington.
Moreover, the first Peace Corps medical director, whom I recall as Lee J. (Leo) Gehrig, was an especially talented and dedicated physician. In 1966, Lee became Deputy Surgeon General of the Commissioned Corps of the United States Public Health Service (Corps).
John Coyne in an email to me confirms that when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia in the early 60s and when he was on staff later, the Peace Corps had four Public Health Service physicians. It also had access to the physicians at the American Army base in Asmara. His any my recollections are that volunteers with major medical problems would be flown to a military hospital in Germany at or near the Air Force base in Wiesbaden.
Service as a Peace Corps physician overseas could still offer opportunities for physicians who are interested in tropical medicine and in infectious or other diseases that might be prevalent in countries to which Peace Corps volunteers are assigned.
Could the Peace Corps establish relationships with the Center for Disease Control and medical schools that have specialties in tropical medicine, infectious diseases and other diseases that might be prevalent in countries to which volunteers are assigned? Certainly, the 2021 Peace Corps should make a serious effort to do so.
If established, such relationships could insure the availability to the Peace Corps of highly qualified physicians interested in temporary duty overseas with Peace Corps volunteers and high quality supervision and medical evacuation services in Peace Corps Washington. The close relationships the early Peace Corps had with the medical and medical evacuation resources of the Defense Department could and should be re-established.
William Josephson is a retired partner of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP. He is the senior advisor for the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute and a long-time partner, friend, and colleague of Sargent Shriver. In late 1960, with a State Department colleague, Warren W. Wiggins, Mr. Josephson co-authored The Towering Task. Josephson worked at the Peace Corps until 1966, holding positions as Special Assistant to the Director and then the General Counsel.