Peace Corps service and the benefits it brings to the United States have changed a bit since I was a volunteer from 1968 to 1973 (2 years in Turkey, followed by 3 years in Iran). Back then, there was no internet, and phone service connecting most volunteer sites to the capital city was in the realm of science fiction. Staying in touch with family and friends back in the USA was done by letter, always taking several weeks for a turn-around. I remember that the way I was supposed to keep hdqrs in Tehran aware of my plans was by a monthly post card to the nurse who headed the small medical section. She probably collected the cards, but she never answered them. Mostly we stayed in touch with one another informally, by word of mouth.Some of these things are long term investments. I think long term investing is one of the places we are falling down right now. I hope we won't cancel the Peace Corps, because it is a long term investment, a strategic investment—because it is hard to know where the war after next will be.
As for the benefits this brought to the USA, let me give examples from Afghanistan. Very early in 2002, when I was Political Counselor at the newly-opened Kabul Embassy, Gadi Vasques, the Director of the Peace Corps, paid a visit to Afghanistan with a small group of staff. I was his Control Officer and had arranged meetings with a series of officials. Our first meeting was with Ashraf Ghani, the newly-appointed head of Afghan Development, who was already burnishing his reputation as a dragon to deal with. We walked into the Palace where he had a temporary office and I opened the meeting, then turned it over to the PC Director, who said to Ghani "I don't know if you know what the Peace Corps is". Ghani smiled and replied "Don't know what the Peace Corps is? A Peace Corps volunteer taught me to speak English. And he taught me how to play basketball too. Ahhh, this is going to be a good meeting..." We went next to see Sima Simar, the (then) Minister of Womens Affairs, and Vasquez started the same way. The Minister looked at him and replied, "Don't know what the Peace Corps is? Mister John was the Peace Corps volunteer who taught me English. And he taught me how to dance..." In meeting after meeting with the officials in Kabul, we heard the same refrain, and they always referred to their PC teachers by name.
But now fast forward to 2005, when I was at the PRT in Farah and our heavily armored PRT team paid its first visit to the remote mud village of Golestan, a place I seriously doubted any official in Kabul had even heard of. Over dinner with a group of villagers that night, one of them suddenly started to speak to me in English. I was shocked, and asked him where he had learned to speak so well. "We had a Peace Corps teacher here when I was in school" he said... His name was Mister David, and his wife lived here too". I spent the next hour listening to stories about "Mister David" (whom I knew, by the way, because he joined the Foreign Service later and we served together in Iran).
What does all this mean? Maybe that one American civilian living alone in a remote place can do more for the United States - and for himself as well - than a lot of westerners in humvees and SUVs with too much money and too much security. I wonder how many Americans now in Afghanistan will be remembered by name later?
To be effective, you have to take risks.
Regards — Cliff