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Time to honor Peace Corps volunteers

On March 1, 1961, the U. S. Peace Corps was officially established. This week marks the 46th anniversary of its existence. The first volunteers went overseas in the fall of that year. My group went to the Somali Republic, a new country, in the spring of 1962 to work as teachers.

All of us answered President Kennedy's question about 'what you can do for your country' by becoming part of what is one of this country's greatest gifts to the world.

Peace Corps is an inclusive club whose members are men and women, people of all colors, all ages, all religions and with all manner of political interests.

Former Peace Corps volunteers have entered every phase of American life. There is a long list of notable volunteers in the arts, sciences, the media, corporate life and politics. Peace Corps is the one institution where Democrats and Republicans work side by side for the greater good.

As examples we have Senator Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut (Dominican Republic, 1966-68), Rep. James T. Walsh, R-New York (Nepal 1970-72), Rep. Sam Farr, D- California (Columbia 1964-66), Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut (Fiji, 1968-70), Rep. Thomas E. Petri, R-Wisconsin (Somalia, 1966-67) and Rep. Mike Honda, D-California (el Salvador 1965-67).

This collegiality needs to be reflected in the House and Senate, by all of its members, so that the needs of the people of this country can be met.

What did my own service do for me? It allowed me as a 26-year-old to travel the world, to places I never, ever thought I would see. I straddled the equator in Kenya, hiked the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands, took a steamboat around Lake Victoria, slept in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro and most importantly, made lifelong friends.

My experiences, exciting and fulfilling at the time, only made me appreciate all the more the gifts the United States had given me.

I recall vividly arriving to teach my class the morning of Nov. 23, 1963. I'd been up all night listening to the radio reports from Dallas. All my students were lined up outside the classroom. They had one question: Which general was going to take over the U. S. government now that President Kennedy had been assassinated?

They couldn't believe that any government had the stability to survive such a disaster. Eight Peace Corps groups came to Somalia after us. A few years later, in 1969, a military dictator, Siad Barre, took control of Somalia and remained in power until 1990. Civil war resulted in the split of the north and south (does that sound familiar?).

The south descended into a prolonged and futile chaotic war for power that continues to this day, while the north became an independent, largely peaceful, entity called Somaliland. I like to think that the presence of the Peace Corps in the north during the 1960s had something to do with their ability to become stable and autonomous.

Returned Peace Corps volunteers have all had such experiences and have returned to the United States the richer for it.

The people in our group came home to get doctorates, law degrees, teaching certificates, business credentials, became entrepreneurs or simply took their places as good and productive citizens of this country.

I'm a grandfather now, and I look forward to the day when my granddaughter is old enough to understand my Peace Corps stories.

Americans, young and old, are still joining the Peace Corps in large numbers. There are now more than 7,700 volunteers serving 73 developing countries.

Just as important this Peace Corps Week, there are over 187,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers who have taken their places in the life of the United States. Now is a good time to honor their service.

Martin L. Kaplan is a West Linn resident and former Peace Corps volunteer.