Congressional Peace Corps Vets Look to Protect Volunteers

Honda, Kennedy push for longer access to health care, protection against assault.

U.S. Peace Corps volunteers at an event in Kiev, Ukraine, in November 2017.
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
Alex Clearfield
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Alex Clearfield
Jan. 22, 2018, 8 p.m.

Former Rep. Mike Honda of California volunteered in El Salvador as a member of one of the Peace Corps’s first classes. And he wants the program, which he calls “one of the best soft powers we have in this country,” to maintain high standards, especially for working conditions.

“When I was in Congress, I visited Ethiopia … and someone said, ‘Garamendi.’ I said, ‘I know Garamendi!’”—referring to Rep. John Garamendi, Honda’s fellow California Democrat, who volunteered in the country 50 years ago.

The Peace Corps, America’s most famous international volunteer organization, has been wracked in recent years by findings that its volunteers are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, other physical violence, and on-the-job injury and illness.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, along with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Johnny Isakson, and Christopher Coons, is seeking to remedy this with a wide-ranging bill addressing Peace Corps volunteer health care and safety, as well as program oversight.

The bill is named after Nick Castle, a Peace Corps volunteer in China who died in 2013 after what the agency found was “inadequate” medical care for a gastrointestinal illness. It is similar to a bill introduced by Reps. Joe Kennedy and Ted Poe last May.

Garamendi and Kennedy, who volunteered in the Dominican Republic from 2004 to 2006, are the only two Peace Corps volunteers now in Congress. Three others have left Congress left since 2015: Honda, Sam Farr, and Tom Petri.

Kennedy said in a statement that he was “proud to stand with Congressman Poe, Senator Corker, and members of the Peace Corps community to support and defend volunteers currently serving around the world.”

Among the bill’s major provisions are extending health coverage for three months after the end of service, as well as providing applicants with crime statistics for the countries they will serve in. The Peace Corps has withdrawn from a handful of countries in the past few years, including El Salvador and Honduras, due to safety concerns.

Poe said on the House floor that many returned volunteers who had been injured or taken ill on duty “face a red-taped, bureaucratic nightmare” while waiting for the Labor Department to determine if their injuries will be covered under federal workers’ compensation. The House bill extends coverage to six months from the current three while the Senate bill extends it to four, but Poe told National Journal he was not concerned that would be a major hurdle.

“Many Peace Corps volunteers would say their return home is sometimes more difficult than when they go overseas,” National Peace Corps Association advocacy director Jonathan Pearson said. “This provision would provide a stronger continuity of care at the most critical time, when volunteers are readjusting to life back home.”

“It’s no fun being sick,” said Honda, who said he was sick for two weeks of his service in El Salvador from 1965 to 1967. “If you’re sick for one month out of the 24 months you’re serving, that’s a lot of time.”

The bill would also extend until 2023 both the Office of Victim Advocacy and the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, which were established in 2011 following the murder of Peace Corps volunteer and whistle-blower Kate Puzey. Puzey’s family alleges she was murdered due to her reporting of sexual abuse by a Peace Corps contractor at a school where she taught in Benin.

“Other stakeholders … may want more tweaks for improvement, but I think there’s general agreement that this has been a positive development and a step forward in dealing with violence in general and sexual assault in particular,” Pearson said. The programs are scheduled to sunset later this year.

Another provision would mandate that the Peace Corps keep a list of employees and volunteers who resign during active sexual-assault and misconduct investigations. A 2015 report revealed that 20 percent of volunteers were victims of sexual assault during their service and that nearly half of assaults went unreported.

An Office of Special Counsel report issued on Jan. 5 says the Peace Corps has at least once rehired a volunteer accused of sexual assault. The report also found that additional sexual-assault training for host families or agency volunteers and employees would be warranted.

“We want to be transparent about our volunteers,” Poe said, noting that in the past, perpetrators of sexual violence who left the Corps during an investigation were not counted as perpetrators in the official tally.

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