Peace Corps Writers
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The Non–Matrixed Wife

by Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74)

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When Joseph Blatchford was appointed director of the Peace Corps in May of 1969 he brought with him a set of “New Directions” to improve the agency. Whether these directors were new or not is endlessly argued, but whatPrinter friendly version was clear was this: Blatchford wanted skilled Volunteers, i.e. “blue-collar workers, experienced teachers, businessman and farmers.”
     While the Peace Corps has always found it difficult to recruit large numbers of such “skilled” Volunteers, Blatchford and his staff came up with the novel idea of recruiting married couples with children. One of the couple would be a Volunteer and the other (usually the wife) would be — in Peace Corps jargon — the “non-matrixed” spouse. The kids would just be kids. It would be in this way, Blatchford thought, that the Peace Corps could recruit older, more mature, experienced, and skilled PCVs. And the Peace Corps would stop being just “BA generalists” like the majority of us!
     This idea proved to be unworkable, costly, and for the Peace Corps, an administrative nightmare, and by the early 1980s recruiting “families” had ceased. The biggest problem with the scheme was that the non-matrixed spouse had no valid role in the country and without that, he or she, felt useless.
     A few of these nonmatrixed spouses, however, came home to tell wonderful tales based on their “Peace Corps experience.” Perhaps the most famous writer from this ill-conceived experiment was Maria Thomas — Roberta Maria Thomas Worrick (Ethiopia 1971–73) — who first went to Ethiopia in 1971 with her PCV husband, Tom, and their four-year-old son. Maria Thomas and her husband would live and work in Africa for over seventeen years and then in the summer of 1989, when they were again living in Ethiopia, and Tom Worrick was the deputy director of the Ethiopian mission of USAID, they accompanied U.S. Congressman Mickey Leland on a visit to refugee camps on the Sudanese border. Roberta went along because she was fluent in Amharic and the mission needed her language skills. During this trip their plane, a two-engine de Havilland Twin Otter, crashed in the western mountains of the Empire in stormy weather and all nine passengers were killed.
     Maria Thomas never wrote about being a non-matrixed spouse, thought she did write a wonderful story about being married overseas, entitled, “Come To Africa and Save Your Marriage.”
     Now, another gifted writer has recalled her days as a non-matrixed spouse for us. Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74) was a young mother when she and her husband joined the Peace Corps in the early 1970s, after she had already spent time in Vietnam as an army nurse. Here is her account of being a non-matrixed spouse.
“I DON’T UNDERSTAND,” our neighbor said in Spanish. Her face brightened, an Aha! moment. “Oh. You are spies?”
     I sighed. I launched, again, into my stock explanation of what the Peace Corps was, what we — my husband and I and our three-year-old daughter — were supposed to be doing in Venezuela as volunteers with the Peace Corps Family Program. She nodded dubiously; I could see she wasn’t buying it. It was a matter of the money.
     In Venezuela, asking money questions — how much do you make? what do you pay for this apartment? questions that would horrify my mother — was not only okay, but de rigueur. And in the University town of Merida, in 1974, when money was abundant and a middle class was emerging, U.S. professors were paid well.
     We were not. Why, then, were we there? If not for the pay, what was our higher call to service? From what our neighbor could see, we spent our time checking our mail and drinking café con leche.
     This was toward the end of our truncated tour, right before the 1974 Venezuelan elections, and we were indeed doing little more than checking mail and caffeinating ourselves and writing to our Peace Corps representative in Caracas, begging him to assign us to somewhere we could be of use. Our neighbor didn’t witness the writing part, but she knew that her country was rife with spies: all the presidential candidates said it was so. She knew the U.S. had recently killed Allende in Chile even if we didn’t yet know, and she wasn’t blind to the Yanqui-go-home campaign signs painted on the stucco walls of the stores downtown, including that four-story-high, full-color painting by the Socialist candidate’s artists of a dog eating a steak thrown to him by Uncle Sam while a starving kid looked on. “The dog of the rich eats better than the child of the poor,” it said in man-tall Spanish script, and it was undoubtedly true. So . . . we were CIA, right?

In Viet Nam
Four years earlier, I spent a great deal of time trying to explain why I was in-country to people I met in Viet Nam. In that case, my job was fairly straightforward: this was in 1969 and ’70, during what the Vietnamese call The American War, and I served as a nurse in an Army hospital. But I still had to explain why I, essentially a pacifist, was participating in a heart-wrenching war half a world away from my home — especially since women didn’t have to be there.
     In truth, I was in Viet Nam because, at 21, I was young and dumb. I had believed a recruiter who plied me with money and the chance to forsake my native Indiana for some exotic place like Germany, Japan, perhaps even Hawaii (but, he promised me, never, ever Viet Nam). I was there because I, who sang protest songs in coffeehouses, had this weird desire to play against type. I had this incipient would-be journalist’s urge to be Where the Action Is. Perhaps I was there because if I was going to be a nurse, I wanted to do something dramatic with it. Hell, I was a kid, only 19, when I enlisted during my senior year in nursing school. Who knows why a kid does anything?
     Once I got to Viet Nam, I was helping to save lives. I opposed the war, but I was supporting the troops, which is not, as today’s politics would have it, mutually exclusive.
     I met my husband Paul in Viet Nam. Both of us were Army lieutenants: I worked in the Operating Room, and he was the hospital registrar, an administrative job that involved the logistics of transporting patients in and out.

Okay, lets try the Peace Corps
Our decision to join the Peace Corps in 1973 had much to do with Viet Nam. We both disagreed with the war; we both wanted to travel and use our skills in a different cultural setting, in a country whose people didn’t consider us the Bad Guys. And then, there was Paul’s attitude toward Richard Nixon.
     But I’m getting ahead of myself. We married shortly after we got back from Viet Nam, and Paul entered grad school in Educational Administration at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. We both held down odd jobs and took classes, and we gave birth to our daughter Kym in 1971.

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