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.