Mr. Speaker, America’s Peace Corps volunteers are our angels abroad. They represent the very best about America.
They give years of their lives to help people they have never met in some of the most remote areas of the world. Often this means putting their own safety at risk, expecting the United States to have their backs.
But right now we are not doing enough to protect them while they are overseas. This will change with the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act sponsored by myself and JOE KENNEDY of Massachusetts.
Many returning volunteers, like Sara Thompson, struggle to receive the medical care they need while they are in a foreign country. Sara’s troubles began when the Peace Corps prescribed a medication called mefloquine to protect her from malaria.
But during her service in Burkina Faso, she began to have horrific nightmares and struggled with her mental health. When she turned to the Peace Corps for help, the medical officer excused her symptoms by simply saying: You are not adjusting well.
The nausea and nightmares continued. With no support from the Peace Corps, she started to research the problems.
It was then she realized the malaria medicine the Peace Corps had given her was making her sick. But today she still deals with these medical issues and feels abandoned by our Peace Corps.
Peace Corps volunteer Nick Castle died in rural China after an inefficient, under-equipped, and unresponsive Peace Corps-led medical team made gross mistakes in treating his illness. The Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act establishes criteria for in-country medical doctors and ensures that they have the resources they need to take care of our volunteers.
Giving our volunteers the best medical care possible is an absolute necessity when they are serving America. There is more.
A brave volunteer told me recently about the daily sexual harassment she experienced while she served overseas. In broad daylight, men would grope and threaten her as she walked home from school.
One afternoon at the market, the cashier threatened to break into her house in the middle of the night and sexually assault her. So she reported this to the Peace Corps, and they assured her that these men were just joking.
No surprise, the harassment continued. Finally, she made the decision to return to America. She could no longer bear the constant hostile environment.
The Peace Corps recorded her reason for leaving as difficulty in adapting to the culture. In other words, the sexual assaults were her fault.
Are you kidding me? Sexual assault and harassment should never be excused as joking and should never be brushed off as a cultural norm.
Mr. Speaker, as a former judge and co-chairman of the Victims’ Rights Caucus, I would point out that sexual assault is never the fault of the victim.
This bill creates new trainings and safeguards to protect volunteers from sexual assault and harassment. It also makes the Office of Victim Advocacy a permanent establishment.
Then there is Peace Corps volunteer Jennifer Mamola. Early one morning, Jennifer was walking with two friends to a bus stop.
Out of nowhere, a drunk driver ran into them. One volunteer was killed. Both of Jennifer’s legs were broken.
So she returned home to America still bedridden and loaded on pain medication. She faced an uphill battle of endless bureaucracy to receive treatment and surgeries.
After months of fighting government bureaucrats, she was finally granted treatment. Far too often volunteers fall between the cracks and are forced to pay exorbitant medical bills out of pocket until the Department of Labor decides to cover their medical situation.
So this bill would provide medical coverage to returning volunteers while they wait for the Department of Labor to give them the medical benefits they deserve. The changes in this bill will go a long way in keeping our volunteers safe.
The bill provides Peace Corps volunteers critical information regarding the country that they are going to serve in. It also requires the Peace Corps to provide volunteers with access to medical doctors while they are overseas.
And it makes the Sexual Assault Advisory Council and Office of Victims’ Advocacy permanent. It also extends volunteers’ medical benefits upon their return home until their coverage kicks in from the Department of Labor.
Mr. Speaker, we must not continue to send our volunteers out into the world without adequate protections against harm. Give them a qualified medical doctor, and we must have an effective healthcare system to take care of them when they return.
Our government should fight for our Peace Corps volunteers, not fight against them.
And that is just the way it is.