Peace Corps Option for Military Recruits Sparks Concerns

Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez, above with President Bush, said recruits are not guaranteed slots in the Corps.
Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez, above with President Bush, said recruits are not guaranteed slots in the Corps. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

The U.S. military, struggling to fill its voluntary ranks, is offering to allow recruits to meet part of their military obligations by serving in the Peace Corps, which has resisted any ties to the Defense Department or U.S. intelligence agencies since its founding in 1961.

The recruitment program has sparked debate and rising opposition among current and former Peace Corps officials. Some welcome it as a way to expand the cadre of idealistic volunteers created by President John F. Kennedy. But many say it could lead to suspicions abroad that the Peace Corps, which has 7,733 workers in 73 countries, is working together with the U.S. armed forces.

"Does this raise red flags for the Peace Corps community? I'd say yes -- emphatically so," said Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, an organization of returned volunteers, staff and supporters. "We think a real or perceived linkage between the Peace Corps and military service could damage the Peace Corps and potentially put the safety of Peace Corps volunteers at risk."

Congress authorized the recruitment program three years ago in legislation that drew little attention at the time but is stirring controversy now, for two reasons: The military has begun to promote it, and the day is drawing closer when the first batch of about 4,300 recruits will be eligible to apply to the Peace Corps, after having spent 3 1/2 years in the armed forces. That could happen as early as 2007.

Two longtime proponents of national service programs, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), devised the legislation "to provide Americans with more opportunities to serve their country," said Bayh's spokeswoman, Meghan Keck. When it stalled as a separate bill, aides to the senators said, they folded it into a 306-page defense budget bill, where it did not attract opposition.

Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez, who was appointed in 2002 by President Bush, said in a recent interview that the Peace Corps was unaware of the provision until after it became law. Vasquez declined to say whether he would have opposed the legislation, had he known about it in time.

"There might have been a discussion, there could have been some dialogue on this, but obviously that didn't happen," he said.

Several former Peace Corps leaders said they hope that Congress and the Bush administration will reverse course and scuttle the program. They include former senator Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), who helped found the Peace Corps as a young aide in the Kennedy White House; Carol Bellamy, the former New York City Council president who headed the Peace Corps from 1993 to 1995; and Mark L. Schneider, who was a volunteer in El Salvador in the late 1960s and headed the Peace Corps during the last two years of the Clinton administration.

"Democratic and Republican administrations alike have kept a bright line separating the Peace Corps from short-term foreign and security policies," Schneider said. "Blurring that sharp line is a bad idea, particularly now, given the unfortunate rise in anti-American sentiment following the Iraq war."

After the law went into effect in 2003, the Defense Department was slow to promote the option of combining military and Peace Corps service, but it is now energetically flogging the "National Call to Service" program, recruiters said. The Army, which began a pilot project in 10 of its 41 recruiting districts in October 2003, expanded it into a nationwide effort this year. The Air Force, Navy and Marines offer identical programs, said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

In all of the services, recruits are eligible for a $5,000 cash bonus or repayment of $18,000 in student loans if they agree to spend three months in boot camp, 15 months on active duty and two years in the Reserves or National Guard.

After that, they can fulfill the remainder of their eight-year military obligation in the Individual Ready Reserves -- available for call-up, but without regular drilling duties -- or by serving in the Peace Corps or Americorps, the domestic national service program created in 1993.

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