On the night of March 11, 2009, a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer named Kate Puzey was tied up and knifed on the front porch of her house in West Africa. Her throat was cut. She was killed the way you would slaughter a goat, Puzey’s cousin told ABC’s “20/20” in a Jan. 15 broadcast. Kate Puzey was the 23rd volunteer to be murdered in Peace Corps history.
The killing took place just days after Puzey e-mailed her Peace Corps supervisors about a fellow teacher and Peace Corps employee. He was not an American, but rather a villager, or Host Country National. Puzey believed he was raping the female students at the school where they taught. Puzey asked that her report remain anonymous, for obvious reasons. But it just so happened that a relative of the accused teacher was employed by the local Peace Corps office.
At first Puzey’s parents were reluctant to blame the organization their daughter loved. But over time they grew frustrated with the Peace Corps’ stonewalling. It did not help matters when their dead daughter’s belongings were unceremoniously delivered in a cardboard box.
Gang rapes and death threats to female Peace Corps volunteers have in the past been met with apathy from the Peace Corps, according to the victims interviewed by ABC. In August 2009, President Obama replaced the previous Peace Corps director with Aaron S. Williams. Just prior to the airing of the ABC investigation, the Peace Corps released a statement assuring the public that Williams improved the organization’s response to sexual assault and other crimes.
As for the murder of Kate Puzey, the Peace Corps had no comment: “Peace Corps does not have a role in the ongoing investigation, but we have been assured that the Benin government is supporting the legal process necessary to conclude the investigation and begin a trial. The Department of State and the FBI have been working with the Benin authorities.”
Good luck with that. In a 2004 study, Benin was found to be the “most corrupt out of 95 countries analyzed.”
Even Peace Corps defenders acknowledge the problems inherent in serving a developing country. One former volunteer wrote: “Peace Corps hires a lot of HCNs (Host Country Nationals) and there are usually a lot of bureaucracy involved in these countries. Firing bad employees is often very difficult and has to be handle extremely delicately (as in Kate’s case).”
Viewers of the ABC show are outraged: “The stunning thing I learned from that report was that over 1,000 female volunteers have been sexually assaulted or raped over the past decade. … The administration had successfully just swept it under the carpet. This … [suggests] to the bad guys that if you rape our women, we will not make a fuss and will hush it up for you. The appropriate response should be exactly the opposite – a timely and forceful, loud response to the host nation that such thing will not be tolerated. None of this ‘we cannot comment since it is still under investigation’ … over two years later! Shame on the Peace Corp bureaucrats!”
Writes a volunteer now serving in West Africa: “It eats at me every single day that I have children being molested in my schools and feel like I can’t say anything about it for fear of backlash or, obviously, worse. Kate was well-integrated in her community, had that ‘wall’ of protection, but in the end, in this culture, murder for the sake of reputation isn’t out of the question.”
The commenter goes on to criticize the bureaucratic response of the Peace Corps in the Puzey case, as observed on the ABC program. “Sometimes you just need to fall on your sword, even if you can’t directly pinpoint the mistake.”
This kind of spotlight could not come at a worse time, just as Congress comes down with an acute case of cut-spending fever. The annual budget of the Peace Corps is $400 million. And this year, the Peace Corps turns 50. Maybe it’s not such a bad time to take stock.
The Peace Corps was born at end of World War II. The idea was compelling: Young Americans would travel to developing countries and serve as “missionaries of democracy.” Sen. Hubert Humphrey introduced a bill in 1957, and on March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the order. A few months later, the first group of volunteers left for Africa, and almost immediately the controversies began. Volunteers in Nigeria stood accused of espionage, were sequestered, and ended up resorting to a hunger strike.
The sad case of Deborah Gardner is the stuff of film scripts. In point of fact, journalist Philip Weiss wrote a book about her. “American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps” was published in 2004. The following year his story, “Stalking Her Killer,” appeared in “New York” magazine.
In 1976, Gardner was known as the prettiest girl in the Peace Corps. Rightfully so. She taught high school on an island in the South Pacific. She was stabbed 22 times by Dennis Priven, a fellow volunteer who was stalking her. He pleaded insanity. Due to technicalities in the law, her killer not only went free, he ended up with a high-paying job in the Social Security Administration. He retired at the age of 51, probably with a nice pension.
If we can’t even protect our own volunteers in these remote corners of the world, what are we doing there? Although the majority of former volunteers consider their time in the Peace Corps to be a highlight of their lives (and would do it again) we’ve come a long way from the “ugly American” days of the 1950s. Besides being a resume enhancer and surefire pickup line, to what purpose is the Peace Corps today?
Fifty years ago, ecotourism did not exist. “Lonely Planet” did not exist. Global Crossroad andVolunteer Abroad did not exist. Now you can teach English as a second language, after making contacts at Dave’s ESL Cafe. You can immerse yourself in a culture, and put some muscle into spreading kindness wherever you go.
Kate Puzey told her parents that if anything happened to her in Africa, they should take comfort in the fact that she was doing exactly what she wanted to do. She’s not the first, and she won’t be the last to give her life in service. (RIP Cheryl Beckett, Daniela Beyer and Karen Woo, International Assistance Mission volunteers murdered in Afghanistan last year).
In the last decade the American military has moved toward the Peace Corps model. Hearts and minds, schools and bridges.
In a 1986 interview, Peace Corps founding director Sargent Shriver, who was hospitalized Monday, described his organization’s raison d’être this way:
When [Gen. Augusto] Pinochet came into power a lot of Peace Corps volunteers were in Chile and they started protesting Pinochet and writing letters to newspapers. I was criticized in Washington for the actions of these volunteers. My response was that we should rejoice that we are the only country in the world that had the vision to send abroad people who are not under government control. Instead, they are independent free-standing human beings. I maintain that they are the greatest advertisement for the American system of government that there is in the world, they are worth a thousand Coca-Cola signs. There is no better advertisement for what this country stands for than an individual Peace Corps volunteer walking down the street unarmed, wearing the same clothes that the people do, eating the same food, living the same life, and being there as an independent free-standing person who believes in democracy and who is compassionate to his fellow man.
Such a sentiment dovetails perfectly with 21st-century ideals of tolerance and global cooperation. Maybe it’s time to recognize that peace and war are not on opposite sides of the spectrum. In some countries, we can make peace instead of war. In other countries, perhaps we’d best not send our daughters unless we send soldiers with them.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2011]