Civil Affairs (CA) Teams and Companies should leverage the cultural expertise of returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) to learn more about countries within their respective Unified Combatant Commands. Teams and Companies can meet with RPCVs in person or via video conference to better understand cultural nuances, build country profiles, and collect points of contact for future in-country engagements, training exercises, and deployments. I know about this because I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d’Ivoire and Madagascar before I joined the Army Reserve and started working in Civil Affairs. The two worlds are complementary, and more people should know how valuable RPCVs could be to Civil Affairs.
Who is an RPCV?
An RPCV is someone who has completed the service requirements for helping a foreign nation. The journey begins as a new trainee, when an American must finish three months of in-country training, delivered mainly by host nationals. Training is broken into daily segments of technical information for the volunteer’s sector, national and/or local languages, cross-cultural approaches to working with foreigners, personal health, and safety and security of living in a small town or village. Then, trainees are sworn-in as Peace Corps volunteers by the ambassador or embassy senior staff and commit to two years of work in a host village, which must provide only a place to sleep and a place to go to the bathroom. The rest is up to the volunteer. Sink or swim.
Connection to Civil Affairs
The mission of the Peace Corps is “to promote world peace and friendship,” by fulfilling three goals: 1) To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, 2) To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and 3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.[i] Goals 1 and 2 apply to currently serving volunteers. The third goal applies to RPCVs who educate their communities about the host country in which they lived. Helping members of the Civil Affairs community to know more about Ukraine or Guatemala, for example, is consistent with their mission.
As Civil Affairs Soldiers and Marines, we are trained to learn and appreciate foreign cultures, local economies, and power dynamics in support of the commander’s intent and desired end-state. Peace Corps volunteers have similar goals but, instead of a commander, they report to the country team and Ambassador. Peace Corps volunteers want to increase shared understanding and cooperation with their host nation communities. CA forces want the same. For the United States, the value of both CA and the Peace Corps truly come together at the strategic level. Countries that host Peace Corps volunteers promote intergovernmental trade, knowledge and technology exchange, and security cooperation. They become our allies.
Peace Corps volunteers work in a range of sectors, including agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth in development.
Instead of living on a base surrounded by guards, Peace Corps volunteers live in the community, share the same food and drink as locals, and build deep relationships over the two years they are in country. While cultural dynamics may vary regionally, volunteers gain an immersive appreciation of the seasonal rhythms and activities that define their adopted home.
Value to CA Functions
For the core competency of CA activities, RPCVs could help CA forces with Civil Reconnaissance by sharing pre-deployment civil information on areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people, and events of the host nation’s civil society.[ii] Peace Corps volunteers are adept at building relationships in foreign countries. As such, RPCVs could be valuable informal trainers or advisors to prepare CA forces for successful Civil Engagement with indigenous populations and institutions.
Regarding the CA supported activities core competency, RPCVs would be value added with functions of Foreign Humanitarian Assistance and Civil-Military Engagement. After Peace Corps service, many RPCVs work in international development with CA’s intergovernmental and nongovernmental partners. It is safe to assume RPCVs have strong connections with the same partners CA forces would engage on the ground for FHA or civil-military engagement. Knowing the right people to meet would translate into hitting the ground running.
Connect with RPCV groups through the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA).[iii] Based in Washington, DC, the NPCA is an advocacy organization for Peace Corps, RPCVs, and community partners. It represents the interests of over 230,000 current and former volunteers. There is most likely a group of RPCVs near you and your active duty or reserve Civil Affairs unit. They are called Affiliate Groups and are defined either by U.S. location (e.g., North Carolina Peace Corps Association) or the country of service (e.g., Amigos de Honduras). Invite them to your in-person training or conduct a telephone or video conference.
Offer to speak with the local Affiliate Groups at one of their social events. Explain Civil Affairs and how CA forces closely align with the Peace Corps mission and ideals. Then, listen to what RPCVs care about. Listen to stories about their service. Those stories are each RPCV’s version of CA war stories.
Many RPCVs remain closely tied to their countries of service and donate money each year to support the communities in which they lived and worked as volunteers. Try to understand the language of the Peace Corps and the development world, which is led by a lot of RPCVs. Ask the local Affiliate Groups how they view the military.
Leveraging returned Peace Corps volunteers will benefit you and your CA team or unit. Such interactions will also strengthen connections across the civil-military spectrum. We have much more in common than we often think.
John E. McElligott is a Civil Affairs officer. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Xavier University and a Master of Public Health from the University of Arizona. He can be found on LinkedIn.
The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.
[i] Peace Corps. Washington, DC. Available online at https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/. Cited April 1, 2020. [ii] Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations, April 2019. Headquarters, Department of the Army. Washington, DC. [iii] National Peace Corps Association. Washington, DC. Available online at https://www.peacecorpsconnect.org/cpages/home. Cited April 1, 2020.