Back Issues of PDAA Today

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Tom Hull’s Peace Corps

by Tom Hull
My Peace Corps service teaching in Sierra Leone (1968-70) not only laid the foundation for my Foreign Service career, it created enduring relationships, friendships, and commitments. Those included meeting my wife, a fellow Volunteer, and eventually returning as Ambassador (2004-07).

As with most RPCVs who join the Foreign Service, the grass roots cross-cultural immersion was invaluable preparation for a career abroad. I was the first PCV to serve in the remote village of Gbinti, where my only link to the outside world was my short-wave VOA reception. Adjusting to culture shock was made easier by the villagers who accepted me as a foreigner willing to live at their level. I developed enormous respect for their resilience, empathy for their hardships, and admiration for their vivacity despite their circumstances. Those three traits were core values that contributed later to my effectiveness as DCM in Ethiopia and PAO in five African and East European posts.

When I finished as a PCV, I left with gratitude and indebtedness for everything Sierra Leoneans had taught me about life, but uncertain if I would ever return. I stayed in touch with my former co-teachers and students until I lost contact during the horrific civil war of the 1990s. During a short ceasefire when I was USIA`s Africa Director, I traveled to Gbinti to witness the devastation. That experience fueled my aspiration to return one day as Ambassador to show that America cares.

When my ambassadorial selection was sent to Freetown in 2004 for agrément, I was amazed to be approved in only two days, until I learned that the request had been shepherded to the President personally by the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who unbeknownst to me was the son of my Peace Corps landlord. When I arrived in Sierra Leone, President Kabbah enthusiastically accepted my credentials the very next day as the only PCV to return there as Ambassador.

As Ambassador, my highest priorities were to ensure that peace would prevail, and human rights and democratic elections would be respected. My embassy succeeded in these areas in no small measure because of my Peace Corps service (and that of other officers in the embassy). My credibility, knowledge, contacts, and cultural comfort level with Sierra Leoneans were assets that ambassadors from other countries did not have.

The only element that was missing was the Peace Corps itself, which had withdrawn during the civil war. Peace Corps alumni and I lobbied hard in Washington for their return, and finally, when I was retired, on the Board of Friends of Sierra Leone, we got that commitment. After the program resumed, I returned to Freetown to meet the new generation of PCVs, including one serving in Gbinti. At that point, my Peace Corps and diplomatic service came full circle. My debt to those villagers after 40 years was finally repaid.

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