Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers (HJPCVs) was officially founded in March of 2012. It evolved over the course of decades, as hundreds of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who felt medically displaced and bureaucratically stonewalled reached out to one another for help and advice.
After we became a formal organization, Carrie Hessler-Radelet (past Peace Corps Deputy Director and former Director) heard some of our hardships in the Fall of 2012 and implemented some improvements at our recommendation. Alleged changes that Peace Corps has provided us as of August 2014 are found here. More needs to be done as most of these changes have not been realized by HJPCV.
In the past, the Peace Corps has had no one specifically dedicated to help us navigate the intricacies of Department of Labor. Many of us who returned from the Peace Corps sick and injured over the past 55 years feel we should have had the support of our agency. Hundreds, if not thousands of sick RPCVs have fallen through the cracks. Many more have given up in despair and stopped trying to obtain the benefits to which they were entitled because the process is too daunting.
DOL is NOT set up to accommodate persons in temporary federal positions who are not actually employees of the agency. Peace Corps Volunteers are not employees. Rather, we are volunteers for the federal government who are paid a stipend. DOL was created to care for injured paid federal employees throughout the entire federal government system, and then place them on a temporary disability status.
Before the internet existed, sick volunteers were completely on their own to navigate the system using savings of their families and friends to simply survive and pay medical bills.
In the 1980s an RPCV, founded a ranch in Northern Arizona where sick RPCVS could live while they recovered. He actively worked with a lawyer to work with Peace Corps to make policy changes. Around the late 1990s and early 2000s, sick/injured RPCVs created listservs and formed a Yahoo group from 2004 – 2009 titled, "Injured While Serving.”
This was the only communication most of us has access to receive actual information about how to navigate and complete the bureaucratic paperwork. These volunteer initiated groups served as the sole place in which to gain moral support and emotional understanding from the myriad challenges resulting from having served our country and becoming sick and injured. We were essentially abandoned by our agency upon return and felt dismissed by the Peace Corps.
BY LAW, the U.S. government promised to provide for us in the event of illness when we joined Peace Corps. At times our physical suffering was less than our suffering from fighting a bureaucracy that repeatedly failed us.
Setbacks in 2007
In 2007, a group of sick and injured RPCVs wrote to U.S. Senators asking for help but received little response. This is a letter sent to Senator Judd Gregg, Chris Dodd and others. At the same time, the Peace Corps Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigated Returned Peace Corps Volunteers with USDOL claims to ensure that none of us were conducting fraudulent activity. While some of us were intensively investigated, the final published OIG report showed that of the 1,300 open FECA claims, few were fraudulent. Many of us felt violated by being intensely investigated by the agency that should have been advocating for us against the USDOL.
Our repeated attempts to petition Peace Corps for the implementation of an Ombudsman or other person to work on our behalf were also denied. At this point, many of us felt defeated and we disbanded the Google group due to exhaustion and disappointment.
Advances Through The Kate Puzey Act 2011
In 2009, a group of brave survivors of physical and sexual assault formed a coalition known as First Response Action. Their diligent efforts resulted in the creation of the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act (H.R. 2337; S. 1280) in November 2011, which we all hope is resulting in positive changes. Some of their personal stories may been read in this powerful New York Times article or viewed in this excerpt from part 1 of a piece aired on 20/20 in January 2011.
Their efforts have brought improvements in the area of safety, yet they feel that more needs to be done. Their July 31, 2013 "Report Card" gave Peace Corps a grade of "C" on implemented improvements.
We conducted an extensive survey completed by 7,500 RPCVs with the help of the National Peace Corps Association's Peace Corps Connect in 2013 and routed our findings to Acting Peace Corps Director, Carrie Hessler Radelet, along with a list of desired improvements.
We became a member group of the National Peace Corps Association. This provides us with added support, connections to a wider readership and more leverage in advocating for improvements by both Congress and Peace Corps.
The press portrayed a brief example of some of our issues here on CBS This Morning in December 2015. The New York Times did an article with the parents of Nick Castle who died of medical neglect in the field and Sue and Dave Castle have continued to work for healthcare improvements in the field since. Representative Ted Poe (R) Texas 2nd District speaks about the need for reform while describing what happened to Nick Castle.
To date, we have seen no improvement on behalf of Peace Corps or Department of Labor in processing our claims.