William Hershey

COLUMBUS: There is a second reason to pause and reflect this Memorial Day as Americans observe with solemn dignity the ultimate sacrifices made by men and women combatants from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror today.

Memorial Day coincides with the 100th anniversary of the birth of President John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy was a Navy veteran of World War II. He survived the 1943 attack by a Japanese destroyer on the small PT boat he commanded only to make the ultimate sacrifice himself 20 years later when he was killed by an assassin’s bullet in his third year as president.

Before his death, Kennedy’s inspirational rhetoric called on Americans to take a leadership role in making the world better.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” he said in his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961.

Sadly, meeting that goal turned out to be elusive as division over the Vietnam War ripped the country apart and American cities exploded with racial violence.

Another part of Kennedy’s inaugural address, however, included a promise that Americans still are trying to fulfill today:

“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

With Congress’ approval, Kennedy established the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. Fifty-six years later, the Peace Corps is still in business, among the most lasting parts of Kennedy’s legacy.

Since the Peace Corps’ began, more than 225,000 Americans — mostly young but of all ages — have volunteered in 141 countries around the world.

They work with citizens in the countries where they serve to combat disease, improve agriculture, spur economic development, teach and, just as important, learn to understand each other.

I was a small part of this ongoing experiment, serving from 1968-1970 in a small town in Ethiopia in east Africa where I taught English to seventh- and eighth-graders. Their classes were all taught in English after the primary grades so a command of the language was a needed tool if the students hoped to better their lives.

I was the only American in town, and the Ethiopian teachers welcomed me and helped me learn to enjoy the national food, a spongy flat bread called injera and a spicy stew called wat.

I even became a fan of the local homemade beer, a thick brew called tella.

The students slowly learned to respect the ferenji, as foreigners were known. Teachers often provided room and board for students whose homes were in the country. One student my Ethiopian roommate and I helped invited me to his family’s country home where I drank the fresh milk that was presented to me as a show of appreciation, health hazards be damned.

Each volunteer experience was different, but certain requirements were universal — learning to be a good listener and remembering, as one Peace Corps leader instructed, that we were invited guests.

The presence of Peace Corps volunteers did not transplant western democracy to countries lacking this tradition. The benefits, instead, focused on improving the quality of life for the country’s residents and, just as important, teaching the volunteers to appreciate the history and traditions of the countries where they served.

In these days of bitter political division, it’s important to note that somehow the Peace Corps transcended partisan politics, winning support from Republicans as well as Democrats.

The Peace Corps will always be identified with Democrat Kennedy, but agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., is named for Paul D. Coverdell, a former Peace Corps director who was a Republican.

The bipartisan appeal extends to Ohio where former Democratic Gov. Dick Celeste was a Peace Corps director and former Republican Gov. Bob Taft was a volunteer.

On a day set aside to honor those who sacrificed for all Americans, this should be a lesson for getting along with each other.

Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at hershey_william@hotmail.com.