My Peace Corps Service

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Like some Peace Corps Volunteers of an earlier era, my decision to join the Peace Corps was shaped by the events on the ground when I volunteered.  In the 1960s, it was the Vietnam War and the draft; the Peace Corps was one way to defer draft eligibility.  For me, in the 1980s, it was AIDS; the Peace Corps was my way of avoiding that “war” of my generation, my way of deferring being drafted into the AIDS epidemic.  In both cases, volunteers were hoping to avoid death while managing to do some good in a world turned upside-down.  I had no idea at the time that I volunteered how profoundly my Peace Corps experience would change me, just as I am sure that those volunteers of the Sixties seeking draft-deferment found their service similarly life-changing.

I volunteered in 1985, beginning the process in 1984.  AIDS had only just earned that ominous title, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, in 1983.  When it was first identified in 1981 it was known as the “gay cancer” and then GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency.  There was no test for AIDS in 1984; the cause, a virus, had just been identified that year.  A diagnosis was made based on the occurrence of “opportunistic infections” – unusual infections that occurred because the patient’s immune system was compromised.  These infections had their own ominous-sounding names:  Kaposi’s sarcoma, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, cytomegalovirus.

Another such opportunistic infection that might indicate the development of AIDS was the reactivation of a childhood illness that a patient had already had and should, therefore, have immunity to.  I had a terrible case of the chickenpox in 1984 and, as a recently graduated nurse, I feared that I had already developed AIDS.  My recovery, however, seemed to indicate that my immune system was, in fact, intact, and I did not have AIDS.  I made the decision to “get the hell out of Dodge,” avoiding further exposure to the virus that caused the disease, and Peace Corps was to be my method of escape.

My decision to volunteer didn’t come out of nowhere; nursing school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had begun the process of educating me on the value of service.  As a country boy from the foothills of North Carolina, I had grown up in a very conservative environment of Jesse Helms Republicans and flag-waving patriotism.  UNC’s nursing school challenged those beliefs, but, as a recently-out gay man, I held onto as many of my childhood beliefs as I could.  There was just too much change in my life to jettison everything at once.  Peace Corps service seemed like a good way to mix flag-waving and service, not to mention allowing me to escape AIDS.

My Peace Corps service in Guatemala continued my education in ways that would have been impossible had I stayed in the United States.  I saw first-hand how policies – foreign and domestic – made in the States affected countries far away and peoples with no say in those policies.  I learned how American consumerism hurt and, occasionally, helped the economies and lives of others.  As I’ve told many people, I got so much more out of my Peace Corps service than Guatemala got out of me.

My time in Peace Corps did not, of course, truly allow me to “escape” the AIDS epidemic.  Newsweek, which was given to all volunteers, and letters from home kept me posted on the spread – the front lines – of the disease.  Rock Hudson died from it and a cousin developed it while I was in Guatemala.  Peace Corps did, however, give me the strength to return to the States and face the enemy.

Upon my return, I found a job as a nurse working with AIDS patients at a hospital in Washington, DC.  While there, I met another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, a doctor, working with AIDS patients.  He asked me to join his infectious disease practice as his nurse and office manager.  My Peace Corps experience had turned me around and allowed me to join the battles of my day.  I only wish that those battles were won today.

Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt

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This is to be an occasional series of posts about . . . t-shirts! I seem to be one of those people who feels the need to buy a t-shirt every time I go somewhere or do something. When we moved last summer, I donated 56 t-shirts to charity! It wasn’t easy for me to donate them, even though most of them no longer fit me anyway—each one of them is a memento of some milestone in my life. I finally made peace with getting rid of them by taking a photo of each one. So, now I have a record of them. As a matter-of-fact, I got so into it, that I took a photo of every t-shirt I own, even the ones I wasn’t getting rid of! And, now I’ve decided to use them as writing prompts.

My first t-shirt is one that I didn’t get rid of—even though it no longer fits me. It is the oldest t-shirt still in my possession, dating from my senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill:

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Although I started out as a philosophy major at UNC, I switched to nursing when I realized that I would actually need to get a job after school. Plus, I kept falling asleep in my philosophy classes. I wasn’t a good student, but I was a guy, and I think that UNC wanted to get more men into nursing.

In retrospect, majoring in nursing was one of the best decisions I ever made. As I had hoped, it allowed me to get a job upon graduating in 1984, in a really bad economy—unemployment was 9.6% in 1983, equaling our own Great Recession’s highest rate in 2010:

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Furthermore, it gave me a skill that I could take anywhere, including Peace Corps Guatemala in 1985 and on to law school in 1992.

Most importantly, however, my nursing degree changed me. Carolina was the crucible that formed me, but the nursing school was the fire. I came from a rural high school that sent around 10% of its graduates to college. I didn’t know who or what I was when I arrived at UNC the week before classes started for Freshman Orientation. I didn’t really know how to be a student or think critically. I’m not sure that I even knew how to be a friend yet! UNC taught me all those things and so much more. I wasn’t the best student, and it took me five years to graduate, but those five years shaped me in ways that still astound me, 30 years later.

So, yes, UNC Nurses Hit You With Their Best Shot, but . . . UNC hit me with its best shot. Good medicine indeed.

Oh . . . I also have a picture of me wearing that t-shirt in 1984:

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It did fit, once upon a time!