Volunteer Death Sheds Light on Risks of Service

Like many Returned Volunteers, I watched ABC’s 20/20 investigation on the Peace Corps with rapt attention. It was a gripping story on all accounts. And incredibly sad.

The death of 24-year-old PCV Kate Puzey was an absolute tragedy. It never should have happened.

Without question, the actions of Peace Corps administration in Benin put Kate in a vulnerable position. And that’s putting it mildly. Alarm bells should have gone off when Kate revealed that a fellow teacher and Peace Corps employee had been raping students. Clearly, this man was dangerous and capable of violent crimes. The alarm should have woken Washington before they decided to fire the teacher on the spot, in the middle of the school year. We’ll never know why Peace Corps didn’t swoop in and take Kate out of her village proactively before confronting and firing the teacher. They are refusing to share any insight into their strategy or protocol for this type of situation. Or if one even existed.

Perhaps the stickiest part of the story–and likely the one that got Kate killed–is that fact that the brother of the teacher in question worked for Peace Corps as well. I believe this is the root of the problem and the leak that led to Kate’s murder. This is also perhaps the most obvious element of risk that Peace Corps could have eliminated in this situation.

They never should have employed two members of the same family.

While they couldn’t have foreseen doing so would lead to a volunteer’s death, clearly the bonds of blood are strong. And even more so in developing countries, where families live together for generations. It’s not hard to understand how two brothers loyalty to each other would supersede company rules about privacy.

Without taking anything away from the egregious mistakes made in Benin, or the plight of any volunteer that has been raped or abused during service, I would like to step back and look at the inherent issue of risk in the Peace Corps.

I’m not making excuse for the Peace Corps in Benin. I’ve already addressed how they dropped the ball. But to say that the Peace Corps as a whole is to blame for these crimes would be short-sided.

Yes, Peace Corps Washington should make it against the rules to hire two members of the same family.  They should also establish a protocol for situations when volunteers need to share potentially life-threatening information with staff. This is a gaping hole in volunteer safety. But no matter what new rules Peace Corps implements, there will be another risk.

Sadly, there will likely be another death.

You can’t take all the risk out of Peace Corps service anymore than you can take it out of life in America. People will continue to die in senseless acts of violence. They will die because of accidents, because of negligence. No matter where in the world they are living. But there is a difference between all the senseless deaths in America and the ones that occur in the Peace Corps.

When someone joins the Peace Corps, they are opening themselves up to very different risks than those that exist on the home front. Tuberculosis, for one, Malaria, for two, and then there are the non-disease risks. Like the safety net that’s removed when you land in a country where you don’t speak the language with a native tongue. Or know the cultural nuances of life and love. If you’re in danger on the street in America, you know how to react to get attention. You know you can trust the police. You can scream “Help” and be understood.

I remember a story Peace Corps staff told in Ukraine about the importance of learning safety words. She said a volunteer had her phone stolen in a crowded train station. She knew it instantly but couldn’t find the words to express what had happened, so she cried out the first thing that came to her mind, “помідор!” or “Tomato!” The word for help still didn’t come to her, and she kept repeating, “Tomato, tomato,” with increasing desperateness in her voice. Needless to say, the phone thief got away.

But there are other stories of volunteers in Ukraine who knew how to say help, who confronted their attacker, and told police what was happening in perfect Ukrainian. But they still got robbed. In some cases, the police didn’t care. In others, bystanders thought the two people, a woman and a man, were in a lover’s quarrel, and didn’t want to interfere.

The risks in Peace Corps service are heightened because you don’t have the basic level of security that comes with being native born. But the rewards are also heightened.

A successful trip to the grocery store feels like you’ve graduated from college all over again. Navigating public transit with ease is like medaling in the Olympics.

These are accomplishments that don’t merit acknowledgment in America. But in the Peace Corps, they are huge.

The gravity of ABC’s investigation is real. Peace Corps needs to act quickly and decisively to make sure any risk that can be more effectively managed is being dealt with. Kate’s death exposed two prime candidates. But I hope it won’t discourage anyone from joining the Peace Corps. That may sound careless, naive, or overly optimistic, but I don’t think fear should determine anyone’s life choices.

If we all acted out of fear, we’d never leave the house. We wouldn’t drive cars, or go skiing, or ride in planes. And we’d never move halfway around the world to live beside strangers, learn a new language, and hand wash our clothes. But you could die from a house fire, or get struck by lightning in your own backyard. We all have to face risks, whether or not we join the Peace Corps.

But for the people who do become volunteers, there should be a confident, proactive, comprehensive volunteer safety strategy in place to manage as many of the risks of service as possible. While steps to ensure volunteer safety do exist, Kate’s death merits another look at them. I can think of no better way to honor Kate’s service than to seriously address what happened with new volunteer safety provisions. The midst of the Peace Corp’s 50th birthday seems as good a time as any.

p.s. I apologize for going radio silent since starting my job in July. When you get paid to write, it seriously decreases your motivation to do it for free.

About Claire St. Amant

Claire St. Amant, one of Editor & Publisher's Top 25 Under 35 in the newspaper industry, is a graduate of Baylor University. Claire was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and has also lived in South America. She has written for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle, and D Magazine.