Peace Corps Op-Ed

What with all 7300 Peace Corps Volunteers being evacuated, I wrote an Op-Ed in support of them. I couldn’t get it published anywhere, and it seems they are implementing my suggestions anyways, so here you go:

Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers Will Need Extra Support

In an unprecedented move for the organization, and in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Peace Corps has evacuated all 7300 of its volunteers from around the globe. In the midst of the ongoing crisis, these returning volunteers deserve special support including extended counselling benefits, medical insurance, and unemployment benefits.

I have had the opportunity and privilege to serve in both the US military and the Peace Corps. I graduated from the Naval Academy in 2011 and served as a submarine officer for five years, stationed on a submarine operating out of Guam. There, my shipmates and I were on the forefront of US engagement in the western Pacific, and I served with pride among sailors doing the utmost for their country.

After I resigned my commission, I searched for another opportunity to serve my country. I found that opportunity in the Peace Corps, and in February of 2017 I arrived in Zambia as a Rural Aquaculture Volunteer. I found among my fellow volunteers a remarkable cohort of Americans who were absolutely dedicated to showing the best of the United States around the world. Their passion for service to their country was as fervent as any I found in the military.

In many ways the service of a Peace Corps Volunteer is much lonelier and more untethered than those that serve in the military. Peace Corps Volunteers are sent alone into their new communities, after a few months of language and professional training, and are expected to work and thrive with little direction from headquarters. They too put their bodies on the line; friends of mine in Zambia suffered from malaria, tuberculosis, broken bones, parasites, and more, often in their isolated villages where the only way to get them to a hospital was to dispatch a Land Cruiser from hours away. And whenever my fellow volunteers were forced to leave their communities, their greatest desire was to get back as soon as possible to continue their work.

The Peace Corps was right to evacuate volunteers in order to ensure their safety. However, the scale of the evacuation is unprecedented and I suspect will overwhelm the Peace Corps’ ability to adequately help every evacuated volunteer. Re-entry into the United States is stressful for volunteers in the best of circumstances, as they experience “reverse culture shock.” An evacuation exacerbates the stress, anxiety, and depression of re-entry, and now thousands of volunteers will need help simultaneously.

When sending these volunteers overseas, the United States asked them to prepare their lives for two years of service. They quit their jobs and moved out of their homes. Now, they are being sent back to the United States with little idea of what to do next. Volunteers had only days warning, and many were unable to go back to their communities to retrieve belongings or say goodbye. They were certainly unable to line up jobs or apply to schools.

Given their difficult adjustment returning home, many evacuated volunteers will benefit from seeking counselling and therapy. Peace Corps normally offers vouchers for three sessions of counselling to returning volunteers, but these can be hard to use as many therapists don’t accept them . Evacuated volunteers should have additional counselling made available, and the network of therapists should be expanded. Careful attention will have to be paid to other medical needs, as undoubtedly volunteers were not able to undergo as rigorous a medical screening as they would have normally received prior to returning home. This screening checks for and documents injuries sustained in the course of service, as well as diseases volunteers could be bringing back home. With the medical system dealing with COVID-19, finding space for evacuated volunteers will be difficult. Priority should be given to ensuring volunteers receive adequate medical screening, along with appropriate and timely care for any issues discovered.

Volunteers are returning in the midst of an economic crisis. Currently, returned Peace Corps volunteers are not eligible for unemployment benefits. This should be temporarily changed to allow evacuated volunteers to receive these benefits. In addition to medical screenings, Peace Corps medical insurance coverage should be extended. Currently, evacuated volunteers get two months of limited insurance free, and can pay for a third month. This coverage does not meet minimum essential coverage according to Affordable Care Act requirements. Coverage should be extended to cover the height of the COVID-19 crises. In addition, student loan deferments that Volunteers were eligible for while in service should also be extended. These measures will ease the financial burden of volunteers unexpectedly returning during the economic crises caused by COVID-19.

The threat of COVID-19 is unprecedented in modern times, and in response the Peace Corps has taken unprecedented measures to protect its volunteers. I know from my experiences that the work these volunteers do is as important as any that serve their country overseas. Given the crisis that is gripping the United States, and in acknowledgement of the sacrifice they have made to serve their country, these volunteers need and deserve an extra measure of support to ensure their smooth transition home.