The Peace Corps in a non-peaceful world

Americans often get rapped by people outside our country as being insular and ignorant of all things not prefaced with a giant, glowing U.S.A.! While there's some truth to this stereotype, it overlooks the strong desire among many Americans to bridge the differences between the United States and other countries.

One of the most famous ways Americans try to do this is with the Peace Corps. Since 1961 over 200,000 American have served in the Peace Corps, including myself and my wife, with both of us serving in Thailand. This service is not without risk. As documented by the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project, 284 Peace Corps Volunteers gave their lives while pursuing the Peace Corps' mission. Many more have been injured, assaulted, or subjected to violence.

It’s for these last reasons that yesterday the Peace Corps announced it was pulling its Volunteers out of Honduras and will no longer send new Volunteers to El Salvador and Guatemala. This is obviously a controversial decision. According to Jared Metzker, a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, the decision is also cowardly because PCVs understand the dangers they're signing up for.

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I understand and to a degree embrace Metzker's attitude. But I also don't want Peace Corps Volunteers to face a constant risk of serious injury or death. Peace Corps pulled out of Honduras after one Volunteer was shot (and, according to what I've heard from other Volunteers, experienced a number of rapes and near constant assaults on PCVs, which wasn't targeted at the Volunteers but instead resulted from out-of-control violence and political upheaval in that country).

During my time in the Peace Corps I was only physically threatened a single time, and was able to escape with no injury because of my large size and ability to bluff drunken idiots. However, several other Volunteers who served alongside me were raped or assaulted. And that was in the peaceful country of Thailand. A Peace Corps Volunteer who'd transfered to Thailand said that in her previous host country, every Volunteer in her training group had been physically assaulted or raped at one time or another. Every single one.

However, the experience she described was an extreme and, to a large degree, politically motivated. And before you think this violence only occurs overseas, the rate of violence among overseas PCVs is probably lower than they would experience in the U.S. In fact, the vast majority of PCVs experience no violence or threats to their safety.

But as Jared Metzker said, all Peace Corps Volunteers understand that trying to improve this world is not without risk. And when you get down to it, the reason our world needs a Peace Corps is because this world is not at peace.  

While I understand why Peace Corps pulled out of Honduras, this is still a sad occasion. Honduras had one of the largest PC missions in the world and those Volunteers were helping so many people. But I also think the reason I'm grieving this closure is because of the special connection I have to both the country and the PCVs there.

During my senior year in high school I spent a month in rural Honduras working on an aid project. On one of my days off I met three Peace Corps Volunteers, who drove up to the ranch where I stayed. I ended up helping them with their clean water project and, by the end of the day, knew I wanted nothing more than to be a PCV. I no longer remember those Volunteers' names, but they showed me how to make a positive difference in the world. They also taught me that the biggest impact the Peace Corps makes is by building personal relationships between Americans and people around the world.

It's because of those Volunteers that I joined Peace Corps. So I hope in a few years the Peace Corps will return to Honduras.