'Service to your country' muddied by Peace Corps-military agreement

When I volunteered for the Peace Corps in 1963, it was largely out of curiosity and adventure, tinged slightly by idealism. Boyd, who would serve with me in Sierra Leone, had one other driving motivation: patriotism.

Three years later, having answered the call to peace, Boyd responded to his country's summons to war. He volunteered for the Army, joined the Rangers, and fought in Vietnam for a year before being wounded. Purely out of patriotism.

"I'm still a patriot," Boyd, now retired and living in Plymouth, Mass., told me unabashedly the other day (but asked that I not use his last name). "I'd pull guard duty at the end of the street if they asked me."

I thought of Boyd after learning that the US military is offering new enlistees the option to meet part of their obligation by serving two years in the Peace Corps. Senators John McCain (R) of Arizona and Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana inserted this obscure provision in a defense bill three years ago. More than 4,000 active servicemen and women will be eligible to apply to the Peace Corps in 2007.

Several former Peace Corps staff and volunteers have expressed concern to me that this could compromise volunteers' credibility and safety. The Peace Corps, according to a spokesperson, was not asked to endorse this initiative, which appears intended solely to boost military recruitment. Unlike the armed services, the Peace Corps is never short of volunteers.

Boyd and I volunteered for the Peace Corps in the era of the military draft. We and most of the other male volunteers expected to be conscripted when we returned from teaching in Africa. Some were. Boyd saved his draft board the trouble.

There are many ways to serve one's country. Strange as it seems, linking the opposite poles of the war-peace continuum is not necessarily a contradiction in terms.

The Peace Corps, lest we forget, was spawned by the US cold war desire to compete with the Soviet bloc for influence in the third world. The Peace Corps quickly transcended its more ideological origins, but at its core it was a battle for hearts and minds. The more than 175,000 volunteers who've served since 1961 have made millions of friends for America - friends we dearly need in an increasingly dangerous, conflicted world.

Volunteers have always faced suspicion abroad that their true purpose was intelligence gathering and political proselytizing.

However, the Peace Corps from its inception has been officially insulated against exploitation - covert or otherwise - by the State Department, the CIA, or the military. The McCain-Bayh provision threatens this separation, at no benefit to the Peace Corps and very little to the military.

Americans volunteer for the military and the Peace Corps for many good, even noble, reasons. My friend Boyd is one of the few, I suspect, who ever volunteered for the Peace Corps largely because it was the patriotic thing to do. He may also be among a select number who have volunteered post-World War II for the military - and certain combat - out of an undiluted sense of duty to his country.

We are patriots, all. We have a Patriot Act, no less. But how many Boyds do we have?

Kevin Lowther spent eight years as a Peace Corps volunteer and staff member. He is coauthor of 'Keeping Kennedy's Promise,' a critique of the agency in its formative years.

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