My wife and I were lucky when we completed our two-year stint with the Peace Corps a few years ago, serving with volunteers from Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Raleigh, Boone and Asheville, and from the rest of the country.
We returned to our Durham home in good shape. That doesn’t always happen.
One of our North Carolina colleagues got seriously ill and was rushed to a hospital in London. He finally recovered, thank goodness, but his story illustrated the danger that exists for anyone who signs up to serve in the Peace Corps, often in areas with minimal local health care facilities. If they’re lucky, they may just get some stomach parasites or skin rashes. Sometimes they get sicker.
Sometimes they never get better.
Military veterans receive lifetime health coverage, which they richly deserve. Peace Corps volunteers do not. Those who end up suffering from long-term illnesses and disabilities can find their lives upended. This is wrong and needs to change. We have a moral responsibility to take care of Americans who serve our country overseas and come home in worse shape than when they deployed.
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Consider the situation of a young woman from Asheville who served as a volunteer in South Africa and now has a disability. Her workers compensation benefits from Peace Corps are so low that she has almost nothing left after paying her medical, dental and other bills. “Thankfully, my parents let me live with them, so I don’t have to worry about rent,” she says. “If I didn’t have family I could live with, I would be homeless with no health insurance.”
Another volunteer was permanently injured while serving with the Peace Corps in Jamaica. “I have relied on food bank donations over the years to survive,” she says. “I had a promising future when I was in the Peace Corps and now I am 47 years old, single, without children, in massive debt and permanently disabled.”
As this volunteer wrote, her situation is “humiliating and shameful.”
It’s past time our country fixed this and, fortunately, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in Congress is now trying to do just that. Earlier this month, the House passed the most sweeping Peace Corps reform legislation in a generation, including better health care and workers compensation coverage, new safety and security measures and other overdue changes. The bill, which passed on a bipartisan basis, with 79 House Republicans voting in favor, would renew and revitalize the Peace Corps for years to come.
The Senate is considering similar legislation. Our state’s two U.S. senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, are both in a position to show their leadership and support for the brave, idealistic, inspiring and impactful North Carolinians who serve our country in some of the world’s most challenging countries. They should champion the pending legislation, which already lists six Republican senators as cosponsors, and stand behind a bipartisan program that has enjoyed widespread public support since President Kennedy established it in 1961. More than 240,000 Americans have served as volunteers since then.
It’s the perfect time for this legislation since Peace Corps volunteers are finally redeploying abroad after having been withdrawn worldwide due to COVID-19.
My wife and I served in Moldova, in eastern Europe. She taught in a school and I worked at a library. Like so many volunteers before us, we felt like we made a difference as volunteers even as we expanded our own horizons and learned more about the world.
We also established friendships that remain strong today, with our host family, work partners and other Moldovans. After returning to North Carolina, we got involved in the state’s long-standing partnership with Moldova. More recently, we’ve been raising money to help Moldova cope with a flood of refugees from neighboring Ukraine.
We recognize how fortunate we were to have this opportunity. In turn, we expected the government would take care of us if something terrible happened. That’s only fair. It also needs to be true.
We Americans take care of our veterans, diplomats and others who suffer harm during their overseas service, as we should. Those who served honorably in the Peace Corps deserve similar consideration. I hope Sens. Burr and Tillis, and all of our state’s congressional delegation, will step up and do what’s right by reauthorizing the Peace Corps now.