Peace Corps Writers
Two Corps, Peace and War: A Memoir
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by Jim Jackson (India 1965–67)
 


Jim Jackson
in Vietnam, 1969

I AM LOOKING AT a black and white snap shot taken in 1969 of me, a twenty-seven year old U.S.Printer friendly version Army SP4 in jungle fatigues, squinting into the bright Vietnamese sunlight. Dog tags hang from my neck. Behind me are sand-bagged bunkers which guard the company’s perimeter. Beyond lies concertina wire separating the bunkers from a road.
     The year before, during Tet 1968, the road was littered with Viet Cong bodies. When the picture was taken only a few bullet and RPG holes remained. One of the dead V.C. was a barber for my company. As a result, I never felt at ease getting a haircut when the Vietnamese barber used a straight razor.
     I look at my picture and wonder what I was thinking. I can’t remember, but now I’m grateful to still be here, breathing, feeling the keyboard as I write this, and seeing sunlight through the blinds.
     The seeming contradiction of serving both in the Peace Corps and in the military in Vietnam was not unusual. In my Peace Corps group, two others were drafted after Peace Corps and one also served in Vietnam. Considering all of the PCVs from that time, there must have been many who did double duty. Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74), an army nurse in Vietnam and author of Don’t Mean Nothing, said it also worked the other way: she and her husband and others were in the war first, then were PCVs. To my knowledge no one knows how many served in both capacities. There is no list.

The times
To understand the contradiction of warrior and promoter of peace, one must try to understand the 1960s. For me, this is what they were like. In 1960, the NAACP Chapter in Oklahoma City conducted sit-in demonstrations at downtown department stores. I participated because I was in favor of civil rights, but I was afraid.
     The sit-ins at the John A. Brown Department Store were not as bad as I feared. I was merely spit on, called a “nigger lover” and cursed.
     Besides the sit-ins there were marches, one led by Charlton Heston star of “The Ten Commandments.” There was Moses, minus the beard and long hair, marching with demonstrators down one of Oklahoma City’s main streets. Now some disparage Charlton Heston because of his NRA connection, and his politics. But I will always remember him — as I see him now in memory’s eye — on that autumn day in 1960 marching for civil rights.
     Later, when I decided the war in Vietnam was a mistake, I demonstrated against the war.

The Peace Corps
Out of college, I volunteered for the Peace Corps. My training group — India 20-B — began with 95 people, mostly singles with a smattering of married couples, for a project in rural health, sanitation and nutrition. About a third of the group were registered nurses, so although most of us were stereotypical A.B. generalists, we had some genuine experts. Three other PCVs and I were assigned to the Health Training Centre in Ramanagaram, Bangalore District. The centre, similar to a county public health facility in the U.S., also served as a training site for health workers.

NGO = (non-profit) Non-governmental organization      When we arrived, the monsoon rains had failed twice, crops had failed, and there was famine. We worked with NGOs, such as CARE to distribute food to school lunch programs, and to pregnant and nursing mothers. Much of the donated food ended up on the black market. When times become desperate, corruption follows.
     There were numerous deaths. Instead of people shriveling from lack of food, starvation led to reduced immune function, which made them susceptible to fatal diseases. Villages were almost deserted, the inhabitants having died or left to find food. In one village, after watching a goat being sacrificed to Kali, a Consort of Lord Shiva, I told a local man I would be back in a few days. He said he would not be there when I returned because he would be dead.
     Upon my return to the U.S., standing almost 5'11," I weighed 125 pounds because every night for two years I had gone to bed hungry — even in the second year when the availability of food improved. In India food became my obsession. I either dreamed about it or thought about it as I tried to sleep. Diversion came when rats used my inert form as a springboard to vault across the room.
     Eventually the monsoon rains returned. In the second year, the Ramanagaram PCVs worked with sanitarians from the health training centre and became involved with the Peace Corps “School to School” program which partnered local schools with U.S. schools. The U.S. schools raised money for school construction in India, and students and teachers exchanged pen pal letters and photos.
  
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