In October of 1960 when John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency, he spoke after midnight on the campus of the University of Michigan and introduced the idea of a Peace Corps.
I was one of the first students to be swept up by his challenge to go to Asia, Africa, or Latin America and contribute a few years to my country. I had never thought of leaving the U.S. before. I would never even have thought of leaving my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Now I wanted to be part of the New Frontier. I wanted to do something for my country.
In the summer of 1962, I went to Washington to train with the first group of Volunteers to Ethiopia. Towards the end of our session we went to meet President Kennedy in the Rose Garden. Leading us was Harris Wofford, then Country Director for Ethiopia and later, as you know, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. Also in our group was another young Volunteer like myself, the late senator from Massachusetts, Paul Tsongas.
On our first night of training, all of the Ethiopia Volunteers went en masse for a long walk on the C&O Canal. Leading us was Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas who had recently saved the canal by having it designated a historic monument. At the end of the two miles, we stopped for hot dogs, beer, and an impromptu talk from a lanky kid named John D. Rockefeller IV. I am not sure if Senator Rockefeller remembers that evening or not, but he was just back from studying in Asia and was working at the Peace Corps headquarters with Sargent Shriver.
Later, on the White House lawn, President Kennedy told us, I hope that you will regard this Peace Corps tour as the first installment in a long life of service, as the most exciting career in the most exciting time, and that is serving this country in the sixties and the seventies.
Well, here it is the 21st-century, and those of us who served are still fulfilling the Third Goal of the Peace Corps: to bring the world back home, by promoting understanding and cooperation around the world, and by continuing our commitment to global peace by supporting the Peace Corps. In 40 years of service in the developing nations of the world, the Peace Corps has come to represent the best that America has to offer the world. It is also one of Americas best bridges of friendship to the peoples of the world, a mission that is more critical today than it ever has been.
The Peace Corps is more important than ever, but the job of Volunteer is much tougher. In the 1960s, my group of Peace Corps teachers was cheerfully welcomed on the streets of Ethiopias capital, Addis Ababa. Now, a Volunteer in almost any part of the developing world will immediately encounter some form of anti-American hostility, if not outright menace. Being a Volunteer today in this time of terrorism requires excellent training and a director who is highly experienced in international affairs and diplomacy. Volunteers who serve in Central Asia, in Jordan, in the many nations of the world where Islam is the faith of the majority, need to know that decisions about their safety are being made by a director who is familiar with conditions and beliefs in the developing world.
Parents and taxpayers, too need to know that the Peace Corpss leader is someone who understands the world, not someone like Gaddi Vasquez who has already proven himself incapable of running even a county in California. How, with that track record, can any of us trust that he will direct an agency with a budget of over 265 million dollars?
While we have had only 170,000 people who have served overseas, we have touched the lives of individuals in over 135 countries, we have made lifelong friends, and we have, to an amazing degree, changed the global perception of America by living among the peoples of the world. We have come home again and in our daily lives, within our extended families, and within our communities, we have taught Americans about the world. Our impact has been subtle but significant. Sargent Shriver once said that the real impact of the Peace Corps would come when Volunteers became parents. Their experiences in the Peace Corps would influence how they raised their children. That is certainly true. In 2002, over 10% of the Volunteers serving overseas will be the children of that first generation of young people, those Kennedy kids who responded to the presidents call to do something for their country.
Today, all over America, young people are facing the age of terrorism and asking what they can do for their country. Today, the mission of the Peace Corps is more urgent than ever, and more difficult. To carry out this mission, the Peace Corps needs a visionary leader with international experience, superior judgment, idealism and ideas.
President Bush has surrounded himself with an extraordinarily experienced team to meet the current foreign policy crisis. We need someone of equal caliber, of international experience, skill, and intelligence, for the critical role of Peace Corps Director.
Thank you for your time and attention to this statement from a concerned former Peace Corps Volunteer.
John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)