59 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps. Since then, more than 235,000 Americans have served; and there are currently 7,334 volunteers who work with this government program in countries all over the world.
Peace Corps volunteers travel to underdeveloped countries and use their skills to support local communities. Not only does this promote social and economic growth abroad, but it establishes a vital connection between the United States and the communities being helped.
It runs even deeper than that for volunteers, who experience all-new cultures and form connections with people they never would have met otherwise.
What’s more — many of these volunteers have already served, but in a much different capacity. Whereas now they travel to stimulate economies or educate young people, before they donned a uniform of the U.S. military and swore to defend our constitution with their very lives.
So why are Veterans so drawn to the Peace Corps?
Military vs Peace Corps: The Similarities
Some Veterans choose to exchange one service for another by joining the Peace Corps. It’s a chance to extend their public service and broaden their status as ‘global citizens.’
For all their differences, the Peace Corps and the military hold several distinct similarities. They’re both:
- A chance to serve others
- Diverse and tight-knit communities
So for those who joined the military to travel and serve, the transition to the Peace Corps is often a soft landing versus trying to identify with the civilian world. Moreover, they’re immediately gratified by the important work done in the Peace Corps.
One of the toughest parts of leaving the military can be the sense of lost brotherhood or relatability that is such an integral part of military service. Brandonn Mixon, the co-founder of the Veterans Community Project, told me, “I joined the military because I wanted to feel like I belonged to a family. Something bigger than myself. And when I got into the military I finally found that, and for once in my life I felt home.”
It’s jarring to suddenly find yourself in what can feel like a cold civilian world, where you’re safer physically but not emotionally. And that’s the appeal of the Peace Corps. Feeling needed. Feeling driven. Developing a new purpose now that your time in the military is up.
Will Aurigemma, a Marine-turned-Peace-Corps-volunteer, believes that the military and the Peace Corps have more in common than the average person might think. In an opinion article for CNN, he drew a parallel between his military service in Afghanistan and his Peace Corps service in the Dominican Republic.
“You might be surprised to hear that the goals of the Marines and the Peace Corps, and the ideals of the volunteers who join them, overlap,” Aurigemma said. “You might also be surprised to learn that the Peace Corps has its own legacy of sacrifice, with more of its volunteers killed on the job than Central Intelligence Agency officers. The Marines and Peace Corps volunteers with whom I served demonstrated more ingenuity, perseverance, and guts than any other group of people I’ve known. They also possessed a surplus of something that is vanishing from many other parts of American life: humility.”
This sense of humility is something that’s forged through seeing pain; seeing struggle; it’s forged by selfless service, and experiencing some of that pain for yourself. Often, the opportunity to make a difference for others is so rewarding it becomes addictive. It encompasses whole lives.
Military vs Peace Corps: The Differences
But while someone’s core reasons for joining the military and the Peace Corps may be the same, you can’t ignore that they’re vastly different organizations. As Aurigemma pointed out, the Peace Corps’ driving principle is cross-cultural understanding. The military’s is defending U.S. interests at all costs.
Some Veterans find solace in this fundamental difference. Marshall Burgamy, a Vietnam Veteran, found that he’d rather build communities up than tear them down.
“I joined the Peace Corps, in part, as penance for having participated in a war I had come to believe was unjustified,” Burgamy said. “While in Vietnam I had little opportunity to understand, or interest in, the local language and culture. In Peace Corps I sought a different worldview and cultural experience.”
The Peace Corps actually established a program in Vietnam in 2016, to teach Viatnamese people English. It’s part of a much larger effort by the U.S. to reconcile with Vietnam.
Besides the difference in mission, the Peace Corps and military are also very different in execution. While the military focuses on teamwork, Peace Corps volunteers spend most of their “deployments” operating alone.
- The Peace Corps is 65% female, while women represent just 16% of enlisted military personnel.
- 99% of Peace Corps volunteers are single, versus over half of military members who are married.
- The majority of Peace Corps volunteers serve in Africa, whereas U.S. service members are based in the Middle East, Germany, Japan, etc.
- Military members make an American salary. Peace Corps volunteers are usually paid a stipend to live off of in the country they’re volunteering in, but not much more.
Anyone setting up a “Military vs Peace Corps” pros and cons list needs to understand that these organizations are fundamentally different. In one, you’ll be asked to swear an oath to defend the American people with your life and potentially bear arms against U.S. enemies. In the other, you’ll be focused on community relations while working to overcome cultural differences — sometimes in dangerous parts of the world.
But when it comes down to it, these two noble options are both opportunities for patriotic service. Their emphasis on putting others before yourself resonates with the same type of person, which is why some choose to do both.
Cherry Washington, a 22-year Air Force Veteran who currently serves in the Peace Corps, cherishes both of these experiences and sees them as more the same than different.
“In my time, no one joined the military to go to war — we joined as a means of doing something positive for ourselves and the country,” Washington told Huffpost.
“Most people view the military in terms of war, but that’s not its mission. The mission of the military is not that different from the Peace Corps, it’s about service to our country to bring about a better world for everyone.”