A Reunion Of Afghanistan Peace Corps Veterans

fromVPR

The U.S. military has had a full-time presence in Afghanistan since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But there's a small group of Americans who know Afghanistan very well from their time in the Peace Corps.

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Long before the U.S. military set foot in Afghanistan a group of young Americans served there as members of the Peace Corps. For nearly two decades, starting in the 1960s, volunteers taught in schools and worked with farmers, engineers and civil servants. Over the weekend, a group of those volunteers held a reunion to reminisce about their time in Afghanistan, and to reflect on events there today.

Steve Zind of Vermont Public Radio has their story.

STEVE ZIND: Time has thinned their ranks a little and health problems keep some from traveling. But still, about 20 former Peace Corps members gathered just down the road from where they did their training in the fall of 1964.

Unidentified Man #1: Good to see you.

Unidentified Man #2: It's only been, what, 46 years?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZIND: They brought old photos with fresh-faced versions of themselves set against the tall jagged mountains of Afghanistan. And they dusted off their language skills.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: How much are potatoes? (Foreign language spoken) How much are grapes?

ZIND: Most of the group spent two years in Afghanistan. And even after lives filled with careers and families, those 24 months loom large.

Ms. BARBARA HANDLEY (Former Volunteer, Peace Corps): So it was the highlight of my life, actually. I mean it was just a special time that Ill never forget.

ZIND: Barbara Handley(ph) taught school in Jalalabad. Thats where she met and married a volunteer from another Peace Corps group. The only civil ceremony available to them was a traditional one performed by a local mullah.

Ms. HANDLEY: In which case, I didnt actually have to be present for my wedding. I had a representative who bargained for me.

Mr. Bob STEINER (Former Director, Peace Corps, Afghanistan): You haven't changed a bit.

Unidentified Man #4: How are you doing?

Mr. STEINER: Good.

ZIND: It was Bob Steiner's job to keep an eye on the young volunteers. Steiner was the director of the Peace Corps in Afghanistan. He says everywhere they traveled they were welcomed by the Afghan people.

Mr. STEINER: It was just a great place. You could travel anyplace in the country without fear at all.

ZIND: But Steiner and the others know that their memories and the images in the old photos reflect another time.

Mr. DAVID MCGAFFEY (Former Volunteer, Peace Corps): The Afghanistan that I knew and knew well is gone.

ZIND: David McGaffey says before he joined the Peace Corps he had his life all mapped out. He planned to return home and lead a quiet existence as a university professor in the Midwest. His Peace Corps experience changed that. McGaffey embarked on a career in the Foreign Service and returned to the Afghanistan in the 1970s as the economic officer at the U.S. embassy.

As he watches events unfold in Afghanistan today, he's worried that policymakers and the American people fail to understand the country.

Mr. MCGAFFEY: We're indulging in a lot of simplistic thinking. We see lines on a map and we think, oh, thats a country. Afghanistan is not a country. It's a loose collective of semi-independent states.

ZIND: Another of the volunteers says people seem to have little interest in learning more about a country that dominates the news, and where American troops are at war.

Len Oppenheim says his Afghanistan experience tends to be a conversation stopper.

Mr. LEN OPPENHEIM (Former Volunteer, Peace Corps): Most people dont want to know about it. They say, oh, you were in Afghanistan, if they find out. I say yes, and thats end of the conversation.

ZIND: The Peace Corps mission in Afghanistan ended with the 1979 killing of the U.S. ambassador. In all, more than 1,600 Peace Corps volunteers served in Afghanistan.

For NPR News, Im Steve Zind in Colchester, Vermont.

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