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In the course of my career I have had the opportunity to serve my country overseas in two capacities. The first one was when I enlisted in the U.S. Army infantry and requested a posting in Europe. I served in Europe for the next three and a half years with two six month tours in Kosovo. The second time was when I joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer. Both of these experiences brought with them a number of risks and rewards and changed my life in ways I never could have anticipated.
During my first tour in Kosovo I was exposed to a whole different world. I had traveled to developing and underdeveloped countries previously and of course had read about the destruction of war and the havoc it wreaks on its people. It was quite another thing to see it first hand and be part of the mission that was supposed to start the healing process. The healing process between the people that identified themselves as ethnic Albanians and those that considered themselves Serbs was not going to be an easy one. Though there were only seemingly subtle differences between the two ethnic groups in the eyes of the U.S. peacekeeping forces there was a history of animosity between the two groups that went back centuries. During this time my unit patrolled the streets, conducted raids, established border checkpoints, responded to mortar attacks and broke up riots. Though none of us was ultimately harmed there, we considered our lives at risk at all times.
For my Peace Corps service, I was assigned to the newly developed Community Based Organizational Development project (CBOD) in Thailand. Before leaving for Thailand one of the recruiters described the volunteers’ responsibilities in this project in the vague notion of going into the assigned village, figuring out what was wrong and attempting to fix it. Reflecting back on that conversation years later, that is an apt way of describing what they wanted us to do.
Peace Corps bills itself as the toughest job you’ll ever love. Peace Corps volunteers often joke that it is also the longest vacation you will ever hate. There is truth in both of these statements. While my military service was tough both mentally and physically, I always had my fellow soldiers to turn to if things became too much to handle. Peace Corps service is very different. You form strong bonds with your fellow volunteers but ultimately you end up going into an assigned village or community all on your own. You start out with basic language skills that you learn while in training but it can take a long time to develop the skills to articulate what you are doing and forging the necessary relationships with the people in your community. It is during this time that volunteers begin to question their commitment, the skills they are bringing to their communities, even the possibility that they can make a positive contribution. The longer it takes to find a meaningful project the more these feelings can take hold. Just about every returned Peace Corps volunteer experiences a make or break moment that determines whether they will stay or return home early.
Eventually, I was able to find some meaningful projects. I worked with several other Peace Corps volunteers and developed the Community Enterprise Committee (CEC) which focused on learning from best business practices of other community groups. Together we put on a three day conference with representatives from all of our villages to give a crash course in small business management that they in turn could pass on to other members of their groups. I also worked on English improvement projects with some of the local schools. I like to think that I made a positive contribution in their lives, but without a doubt I know they made many in mine.
My service as a soldier and as a Peace Corps volunteer both had their risks and their rewards. As a soldier I risked my life everyday to help provide a safe and secure environment for the people in my sector. In the process I had to give up the niceties of life to make sure others at least had a chance at life. In the process I made lifelong bonds of friendship with my fellow soldiers. Life was miserable during that first tour, but I only have fond memories of those times. It was my service in Peace Corps that was ultimately the most dangerous as I nearly died in a bicycle accident and feel lucky to have walked away with a badly dislocated shoulder. To this day my shoulder still aches and reminds me of what might have happened. In addition to the lifelong friends I made during Peace Corps, I also met my wife who is Thai. The proof to me that the rewards outweigh the risk is that I longingly look forward to another opportunity to serve my country overseas. Additional rewards include the opportunity to really learn and know a new culture, a different language and broaden one’s horizons.
Unfortunately not all of those that serve overseas make it home and many that do bring with them scars, both physical and emotional, from their service. One of the saddest moments in my life happened during my training in Peace Corps. I received an email from a friend that told me that a number of our brothers died when their Bradley rolled into a canal during a sandstorm in Iraq and they all drowned. I honor their sacrifices, in my own small way, by trying to make a positive contribution and improving the lives of others both at home and abroad. I think the best way we can show our appreciation is by doing our part to make things better at home for those that will return.
Author: Andrew Hokenson currently serves as the Troy University student representative on the board of the Evergreen Chapter of ASPA. He has just completed the requirements for Troy’s MPA degree with a focus in Public Management. He also holds a Master of Science in International Relations degree with a focus in National Security and a special emphasis on developing and underdeveloped countries.