The Peace Corps Wants You

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

"The men and women who join the Peace Corps reflect the rich diversity of America in race, ethnic background, age, and religion."

-- From the Peace Corps Web site

THAT RICH diversity apparently doesn't include able-bodied Americans who are also HIV-positive. As Post columnist Stephen Barr reported last week, Jeremiah S. Johnson learned that harsh lesson in January when he was drummed out of his service in Ukraine and out of the Peace Corps altogether after he tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the 47-year-old creation of President Kennedy on Mr. Johnson's behalf to get it to stay true to its ideals.

Mr. Johnson, 25, who was HIV-negative when he joined the Peace Corps, had been teaching English to middle and high school students in Rozdilna, Ukraine, since December 2006. While in Kiev this past January for a Russian language program attended by other Peace Corps volunteers, Mr. Johnson received a midservice medical exam and consented to an HIV test. The results came back positive. He was given two days to shut down his work, pack up his belongings in Rozdilna and head back to Washington.

In his lawsuit, Mr. Johnson said the Ukraine country director for the Peace Corps told him that he had to return to Washington because Ukraine does not allow foreigners with HIV to work there. We will save our quarrel with Ukraine's policies for another day; no matter how misguided and discriminatory, they cannot excuse the U.S. government. After another medical examination in Washington in February, Mr. Johnson's Peace Corps volunteer career came to an end.

"The resolution of your condition(s) will take longer than the maximum-allowable 45 days," Mr. Johnson's medical separation notice said. It went on to add that it was determined that he "would be medically unable to perform" his volunteer assignment. Never mind that Mr. Johnson is in good health and eager to help others. In a brief note acknowledging receipt of the separation notice, Mr. Johnson wrote, "My signature does not imply that I agree that my separation is lawful or appropriate, or has any sound medical basis." A letter from the ACLU to Peace Corps Director Ronald A. Tschetter challenged Mr. Johnson's termination as a violation of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act because it "appears based upon a Peace Corps policy to terminate volunteers who are HIV positive without an individualized assessment as to whether they are able to serve with reasonable accommodation."

A more formal response to the ACLU letter is forthcoming. Peace Corps press director Amanda H. Beck told us yesterday that the agency does not have a policy of "automatically excluding people with HIV." Still, the fact remains that Mr. Johnson, now waiting tables back in Colorado, was booted from the Peace Corps because of his diagnosis. HIV should not be a barrier to public service. Making it so, as in Mr. Johnson's case, is a waste of talent and goodwill. With all of its work in dealing with HIV-AIDS around the world, the agency should know that.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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