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My Turn: Making a peaceful difference

Posted: Wednesday, March 05, 2003

The occasion of Peace Corps Day got me thinking. About war, first of all, and the men and women who have been deeply involved in wars. About the tragedy of the Vietnam war, and the many lives that were needlessly lost because of our misdirected efforts. And of the imminent war with Iraq. But also about peace and the many of us who were deeply committed to the peace movement of the 1960s, 1970s and beyond.

I was a volunteer in John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, and met a lot of people who were idealists and firmly believed in that president's famous quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!" And when they asked that question of themselves, it didn't mean spending time holding a rifle and learning how to kill people. It meant a deep commitment to helping others less fortunate to help themselves cope in an ever more complex world.

The "boot camp" in the Peace Corps was no piece of cake. It meant a grueling schedule six days a week for three months from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., learning two foreign languages and how to live in two distinctly different cultures in a geographic setting that would be 13,000 feet high and 13,000 miles away from home. Then we spent 1 1/2 months in our assigned country, Bolivia, in almost complete immersion before we were considered ready to begin our two-year preliminary commitment.

The Peace Corps then was quite different from the more professional organization of today. A majority were generalists and each of us worked in everything from sheep shearing and the introduction of new potato strains to latrine construction and vaccination programs. All for a whopping salary of $90 per month! We lived without electricity or running water, and we had to function in the middle of revolutions and counter revolutions. Simply because I was working with the Indian people of the Altiplano, the Bolivian military thought I was a Che Guevara sympathizer, and I was arrested, jailed and almost shot!

But our trainers were right. They guaranteed if we finished our two years there we'd go from rags to riches. Not in terms of the material wealth we'd earn after the Peace Corps back in America, but of the riches of the spirit we'd gain from the experience.

How true it was. I know of no volunteers who have become wealthy or any who even want to be. But I know a great number of them who continue to serve their country and their fellow humans, and who still believe it is possible to be idealistic in this very mean and shallow age of materialism in America today.

After plunging into such a kaleidoscope of families, communities, institutions and environments so very different from our own, as PCVs we came to understand the pride and the pettiness, the dreams and the schemes, the fears and the humor and hospitality of otherwise unfamiliar peoples all over this island earth of ours. And in seeing how different they were from us, we also better understood how similar we were to one another. We were somehow all in this big old boat together, and therefore we bore the collective responsibility of working our problems out together.

We also became aware that if we didn't do this, eventually we would all pay for it dearly. It's been almost 35 years since I left the Peace Corps. As for so many others, it was both a chastening and liberating experience for me, too. It also had a profound influence on what I did with my own life after the Peace Corps. What they told us during training, "once a volunteer, always a volunteer," has turned out to be remarkably true. Although I realize the world is generally worse off than before the Peace Corps was initiated, I sincerely believe there are little corners of the globe where things are a microincrement better than before a Peace Corps Volunteer worked there.

Frank Keim of Fairbanks is a 42-year resident of Alaska who worked with the Peace Corps from 1966-68. He also taught in Southwest Alaska for 21 years.



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