THERE WAS NEVER A DOUBT in my mind. From the moment I heard him speak of the Peace Corps, as a high school freshman, I knew it was for me. Then, it was a simple dream of far-away places, colorful people and a chance to help. The assassination of President Kennedy plummeted me into a shocking realization of the real world its irrationality and the terrible consequences of self-interested power. His death strengthened my resolve, and I entered Peace Corps training upon college graduation at age 21. I hadnt yet formed any plans for after the Peace Corps. It was well that I hadnt, for it was for the experience itself that I shaped my long-term goals.
I spent two years in Cebu City, Philippines at the height of the Vietnam War, 19681970. I could never have known at the time how it all would influence me. A happy, if protected, childhood gave way to a new period wherein my values about life, death, God, humanity, war and the universe emerged slowly, presenting themselves as gifts of self-awareness.
In a letter home, I wrote: This is a country where the greatest joys are the simplest things. I developed strong friendships which last to this day. My hosts cultural differences prompted me to reflect on my own peculiar American mores. That process amazed, enlightened and enriched me. Alongside this, I observed Third World exploitation by more powerful nations and by a dictator. I also met drugged-out U.S. soldiers on leave from the horrors of a war raging just 500 miles away. Those realities were sobering. I enjoyed laughter and beauty, but also tasted failure and fear. All these experiences were meaningful lessons of life.
A modified passage from Kahlil Gibrans writings expresses well my feelings on leaving my host country.
. . . a sadness came upon her and she thought in her heart: how shall I go in peace and without sorrow? May, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city. Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness, and who can depart from this pain without regret? Too many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache . . . . Yet I cannot tarry longer. Fain would I take with me all that is here. But how shall I?
Little did I know how much I would take away with me. To my satisfaction, I find the more time that has elapsed since my Peace Corps days, the more meaningful the experience becomes. This irony might be explained by the fact that the values clarified for me at that time have guided all my personal and professional choices since. So perhaps it is natural that I enjoy Peace Corps reunions and new Volunteer acquaintances, not out of nostalgia, but rather from the sharing of a special bond.
I will be forever grateful to John Fitzgerald Kennedy for his faith in us, his faith in me, when he created the Peace Corps. He knew we would surely make mistakes, as I did, but he had faith that, in the balance, the world would be better off for having a Peace Corps. He died, I believe, not a saint, but a martyr.
On this 25th anniversary of his death, I am again saddened to recall our loss. But this day also allows me to renew my hope and action as we commemorate a great man, who, while alive, inspired me as I approached adulthood, and whose spirit, since his death, lives on through current and former Peace Corps Volunteers. I am proud to be part of that legacy.