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Ross Szabo

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The Few, The Proud: Military Veterans in the Peace Corps

Posted: 05/24/2012 11:41 am

Veterans and current soldiers are often honored for serving their country on the front lines of wars, conflicts and truly unimaginable experiences. On Memorial Day it's common to see images of soldiers in uniform, giving thanks from military bases all over the world or retired veterans marching in hometowns with a gaze in their eyes that gives a glimpse into the reflections of their service running through their minds.

We honor military personnel and veterans for what they are doing and have done for our country. It may be a bit of a surprise to hear that some veterans extend their opportunity to represent the U.S.A. after military service by joining the Peace Corps. I interviewed five veterans who are volunteering in Botswana.

Charles McGee is in his early 60's. He served in the Army for 30 years. He has a strong sociable personality augmented by his great sense of humor. He joined the Army in 1966. He said, "We were involved in a war. I suddenly found myself in the academic zone of eligibility
for the draft. So, to beat the draft I enlisted for a nice cushy desk job out of harm's way. My Uncle Sam trained me well, and before long, I was flying helicopters as a young, green behind the ears lieutenant on a yearlong, all expense paid, experience-building trip to Southeast Asia."

When President Kennedy launched the Peace Corps in 1961, Charles really liked the idea and wanted to join. Forty-nine years after the formation of the Peace Corps he followed his dream. He began his service in Botswana with his wife, Mary. He said Peace Corps and military service are similar in the following ways, "Both have provided me with the opportunity to travel outside the United States; to represent the American people in foreign lands well outside the beaten path; meet and grow to understand and appreciate people with a different culture, language, customs and traditions and work alongside them as they pursue a free and better life."

Charles also noted some differences, "For over 150 years the official name for what is now the Department of Defense was the United States Department of War. With that said, I suppose you could call one the, "War Corps," and the other the, "Peace Corps." It is with great pride that I can say I've served them both. They both serve a very definite but different purpose for the American people. The military protects and preserves our way of life while the Peace Corps expands understanding and good will."

Marion Mobley is a thrill seeking, resourceful man who just turned 61. He also joined the military during the Vietnam Conflict. He shared, "I was undecided about what to do career-wise, and did not like school. I was running out of money to pay for school. I had a very low draft number and knew I would be drafted into the service eventually anyway. I decided to join the Air Force rather than be drafted into the Army."

He served in North Dakota for 4 years, married his longtime girlfriend, Tish, and began a career in IT work. He is continuing IT work in the Peace Corps.

There can be similarities in adjusting to both types of service. Marion offered his perspective, "The culture shock is similar. The culture of the military with its jargon, uniforms and discipline requires as much adjustment as joining the Peace Corps and moving to Africa. The bonds you make with your friends in the service are strong, very similar to the friendships you make in your Peace Corps group. It seems that friendships made during stressful times are stronger."

Marion has found three main differences between his military and Peace Corps service. He noted, "First, the military micro-manages and tells you what you are to do in great detail. In the Peace Corps, after PST (Pre-Service Training), we are mostly left alone to find projects to
do based on the needs of our community and our own interests. Second, I am serving in the Peace Corps with my wife, which would not be the case in the military. Third, rather than working in an organization whose purpose is to defend the country with arms, the Peace Corps puts us "on the front line" as it were, alone, armed with just our good intentions."

Cherry Washington has an endearing personality and truly enjoys helping others. When she graduated from high school in 1972 she didn't have the means to go to college or a definite focus or idea of what to do next. She enlisted in the Air Force. Her decision eventually led to
her graduation from Grambling State University and meeting her husband, Glenn. She retired after 22 years and felt she still had a lot to give back.

She sees a lot of similarities between military service and the Peace Corps. She said, "In my time, no one joined the military to go to war -- we joined as a means of doing something positive for ourselves and the country. Most people view the military in terms of war, but that's not its mission. The mission of the military is not that different from the Peace Corps, it's about service to our country to bring about a better world for everyone."

She continued with her view of the shared roles, "Over the years I have represented our nation in countries such as Korea, Sweden, Finland, Malaysia and Germany in the role of military protector. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I represent my country as a capability builder,
not protecting but building. Trying to build skills and confidence in people so that they can live richer and rewarding lives. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to serve in the military and Peace Corps."

Tom DeFayette is the kind of person who goes out of his way to help others with whatever they need. He attended Norwich University as an ROTC student and enlisted in the Army after college. He was a medical supplies officer for 20 years. Now he is working at a District AIDS Coordination Office. He talked about the overlap between joining the military and Peace Corps, "I felt I would like the lifestyle of travelling, educational opportunities, job security, meeting people and the excitement. However, a key reason for joining the Peace Corps was to use my acquired skills and knowledge in an unselfish way for no other reason but to help others."

For Tom the similarities in service are based on strength and adaptability. He said, "Both types of service require resiliency and enduring many unknowns. The military, like the Peace Corps, requires you to go to places you are unfamiliar with and get right to work. This requires you to be self-motivated and focused on the outcome. In return, you become confident and flexible."

He agreed with Marion about the regimented procedures of the military. He talked about the differences he is currently seeing, "Peace Corps service, for the most part, requires you to write your own procedures as to how you are going to get the work done. If something doesn't get the job done you need to come up with a different approach. In the Peace Corps you are often on your own to figure out what your next step will be."

Corey McEachern is a 35-year-old veteran with a big heart and passion for helping others. He joined the Marines two weeks after graduating from high school in Rineyville, Kentucky in 1994. Corey appreciates public service and wanted to give back to his country by serving. He served for four years as a scout sniper, infantryman and operations non-commissioned officer. Corey was in 12 countries including Bosnia, South Korea and Israel. He is now doing public health education in a primary school.

Having a connection to others is important to Corey. He joined the Peace Corps to continue serving his country and expand his community. He talked about what he enjoys most about both kinds of service, "First of all, members have been sent to a foreign land, to work and live with people from all over the United States and the world. Secondly, the members are some of the best people you'll ever meet. Each person is fantastic."

The biggest difference Corey appreciates is having a voice in his service. He said, "There's a big difference in the day to day administration. The types of policies, volunteer support systems and activities, are all heavily influenced by volunteers. Peace Corps gives volunteers plenty of room to express themselves professionally and personally."

When I asked each person what is the most special part about serving in the Peace Corps, the most common answer was friendships. The camaraderie that develops between people who serve their nation in the military or Peace Corps and the people they work with in foreign countries is a unique bond that crosses borders and opens minds.

This Memorial Day, let's take some time to thank numerous female and male veterans who have chosen to continue to serve their country in the Peace Corps.

 
 
 
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