Bound by a daughter’s death in the Peace Corps

My family includes a 25-year-old daughter who recently informed her parents that she was filling out an application to join the U.S. Peace Corps.

So it has been with more than detached interest that I have watched a rare, intense relationship form between Harry and Lois Puzey of Cumming and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey back home in Cumming, Georgia with her brother David, father Harry, and mother Lois. MCT

Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey during a trip home to Cumming, Ga. -- with her brother David, father Harry, and mother Lois. MCT

On March 12, 2009, the couple’s 24-year-old daughter Kate, a Peace Corps volunteer, was murdered as she slept — her throat slit — in a small, interior village in the west African country of Benin.

Only hours before, Kate Puzey had emailed her supervisor, accusing a local, male Peace Corps staffer of molesting village girls. The young volunteer asked that her supervisor keep the communiqué confidential. It was not — the man’s brother worked in the country’s Peace Corps headquarters.

Last week, several members of Congress, led by Isakson, introduced the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, which would require the U.S. government’s ultimate good-deed agency to give protected whistle-blower status to volunteers who report wrongdoing — and to treat victims of sexual assault with a measure of respect.

It has been a long road for the Puzeys and for Isakson. And there are still miles to go.

Politicians are hesitant to attend the funerals of strangers without invitation — the likelihood of trespassing on private space is considered too great. In the spring of 2009, Isakson made an exception.

He was moved by the account of Kate Puzey’s death he read in the newspaper. “The article was on the right-hand column of the front page, above the fold,” the senator remembered. “That young lady died for the country, as sure as any soldier did.”

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) keeps the photo of murdered Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey at his desk on Capitol Hill. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) keeps the photo of murdered Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey at his desk on Capitol Hill. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

Unbidden, Isakson made the long drive from Cobb County up Ga. 400, and sat through the two-hour service. Afterward, he quietly told the Puzeys to call him if he could help.

Though the Peace Corps’ Atlanta office is a mere hour away, the Puzeys were informed of their daughter’s death with a phone call. Six months later, her effects from Benin were delivered. Dropped off in the driveway by a FedEx truck like an Internet order of office supplies.

That’s when the couple called Isakson. Harry and Lois Puzey are worldly people. Until 2006, they roamed the globe — with their son and daughter — as teachers in schools run by the U.S. Department of Defense. This is how Kate Puzey came by her language skills.

But the parents told Isakson that when it came to the details of how their daughter died, the Peace Corps had become a black hole. They had been treated as potential lawsuits or, worse, an embarrassment to be pushed into a dark corner.

For more than two years, the Puzeys have trod a diplomatic path. The three men accused of complicity in Kate Puzey’s death, including the Peace Corps staffer and his brother, remain in jail, untried — and the parents don’t want to jeopardize the fragile thing that is justice in Benin.

Neither do they want to discredit the agency their daughter joined. “We were in a dilemma. We realized that Kate loved the Peace Corps. But on the other hand, they weren’t doing what they needed to do for our family,” Lois Puzey said.

Isakson has likewise been in a delicate position. As a man who came of age in the Kennedy era, he is a fan of the Peace Corps, and can remember JFK’s call to establish the agency in 1960. Isakson occupies the U.S. Senate seat once held by Paul Coverdell, a director of the Peace Corps under the first Bush administration.

Isakson is also the ranking Republican on the African subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. And with then-Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Isakson introduced a bill in 2010 to protect Peace Corps whistle-blowers. It stalled.

Frustrated, the Puzeys agreed to cooperate with ABC News’ “20/20” on a report about their daughter’s death, and the Peace Corps’ treatment of volunteers who had found themselves victims of sexual assault.

That resulted in a hearing last month before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Lois Puzey testified, with Isakson beside her, holding her hand. “Washington can be an intimidating place. You need a friend now and then,” Isakson said.

Lois Puzey told House members that one of the investigating judges involved in her daughter’s murder case had recently declared there was not enough evidence to move the case forward.

Days later, Isakson was in Benin, in the office of Thomas Yayi Boni, the country’s president. The Georgia senator carried one letter from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and another from Lois Puzey.

Isakson spent two hours with the president, and another five with Benin’s minister of justice — who wrote out a reply to Lois Puzey on the spot. Isakson hand-delivered it to the Puzeys two Sundays ago.

Kate’s grave isn’t far away — in a cemetery off Buford Dam Road. But Isakson has vowed not to visit it until his bill is passed.

“He’s taken it very personally. We know that. We can tell that,” Lois Puzey said, her voice tightening.

“He’s my hero. All politicians talk the talk, but he’s walked the walk for our family,” said Harry Puzey. Cancer and the lack of resolution have given Kate’s father a translucent appearance.

Both parents know that the bill now before Congress may be all the closure they ever get. David Puzey, Kate’s older brother and a public policy grad student in California, has helped with the language.

But even without the legislation, the Puzeys say their daughter’s death has made a difference. New protocols have been established by a new director. A safety net is in place.

If your daughter wants to join the Peace Corps, they said, let her.

“Absolutely,” Isakson agreed.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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35 comments Add your comment

td

June 29th, 2011
6:53 pm

What was the reason the bill stalled? What is the current status of the bill? This seems like a no brainer to me, any person working within the government should have protection for coming forth and shining light on corruption or in this case rape of minors.

The Centrist

June 29th, 2011
8:02 pm

It is amazing that Senators Chris Dodd and Ted Kennedy introduced legislation in 2007 mandating that the Peace Corps guarantee confidentiality for Volunteer whistle blowers and protect them against retaliation. The Peace Corps and the National Peace Corps Association opposed that legislation. Once again a situation sided on the partisanship of now being reactive rather than proactive when it was evident that bad things were going on.

EJ

June 29th, 2011
8:12 pm

The protection was already there with No Fear.If no one followed procedure and called the OIG the protocols would not have gone into effect.The reason the Safety and Security Department exists is because of the murder of Walter Poirier.Some counties already have the committees that are being recommended, although the are not exclusive;violence in general,S&S,Gender and Development,etc.The legislation seems more token because of these reasons.There are core,systemic reasons for the catastrophic S&S failure.

T Knight

June 29th, 2011
8:34 pm

My heart breaks for the Puzey’s loss and I admire them immensely. Thank you Senator Isakson for giving this family some level of peace. They deserve it.

Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

June 29th, 2011
9:36 pm

Check out the history of Benin, otherwise known as The Slave Coast. Great evil is centered there: Roman Catholicism, taught by French and Portuguese slavers’ priests dominates so the molestation is likely a local norm. Americans are without moral authority having allowed Bush and Cheney to commit 9/11 with impunity, and the rest of the world is worse than we are. They know we are an unrighteous, enslaved people. In their eyes we are vulnerable and weak unless weapons are in our hands…a target. Her parents, raising her under the DoD “umbrella,” keeping her sheltered from and uninformed of the evils we have suffered and are committing around the world, sent her off as a lamb to slaughter. May she be the last to suffer and may the People rise and cast the Beast into the PIt.

Happy Independence Day – may we re-win the Revolution against the tory treason now ruling over us!

William2

June 29th, 2011
9:42 pm

With deepest sympathies to and admiration of the Puzey family, I must say, Jim, that this is one of the best pieces of journalism I have seen in a long time.

Newt is nuts

June 29th, 2011
9:56 pm

Jim, I agree wholeheartedly with William2. This was a marvelous story. It’s shame that Will Jones, the nut case, has to muck things up with his lunatic drivel. Is there anyway you guys can block him? If there is, please use it. Again, great story.

SusanB

June 29th, 2011
10:43 pm

Thanks Jim for an insider story that most of us would not have known! I too have known Isakson to do the right thing on many occasions.

double

June 29th, 2011
10:44 pm

@WILL J Who is such a liar as he who denies that Jesus is the Christ.He is the anti-christ-Who habitually denies, and refuses the Father and the Son.No one who denies the Son even has the Father.

Kbee

June 29th, 2011
11:58 pm

I don’t think we should spend a penny of tax money on the Peace Corps.

double

June 30th, 2011
1:04 am

TD the above does not state rape.Unless you know different you should not add words or change statements.

Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

June 30th, 2011
1:29 am

double – Think the murderer’s “molesting village girls” was consensual?

Read up on Benin. Sickness goes back there “Sparta style,” a long time. Same as the Koreans and Turks.

Cobb Woman of Color

June 30th, 2011
3:00 am

My sympathy to the family. I pray the bill is passed.

Thanks to Senator Isakson for his work in protecting others.

Cherokee

June 30th, 2011
5:05 am

Thank you Senator. And I say that as someone who has been appalled at your current partisanship.

And thanks Mr. Galloway for bringing us this story.

I also echo what Newt is Nuts says – why is Will Jones allowed to defile such an honorable story of the good deeds of the Senator and the family with his slimy posts?

Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

June 30th, 2011
6:09 am

Rather than learn from the circumstance, that her death not be in vain and others be protected “Newt is nuts”/”Cherokee” would rather have the informed voice silenced?

And with the Fourth approaching. How American?

Read up on Benin, “Newt is nuts”/”Cherokee.” Just the Wikipedia article is enough: A “warrior” culture where each fighter takes a little boy as an “apprentice” as in Sparta? Are you inured to the truth?

And that was before it became dominated by Roman Catholic priests.

Like the “strikers” each Turkish officer kept in the Korean War. Have you no idea why the foreign wrestling coach was sent home during the Atlanta Olympics? Two-thirds of the earth’s cultures yet practice homosexual rites-of-passage, and in many, including Benin, no doubt, pedophilia is the NORM.

Innocence and ignorance can be fatal as this tragedy proves.

Might it not have been wise, in retrospect, for the Peace Corps, or her parents, to have made the poor, young lady, who is now with G-d, aware of the perverse element present in Benin’s culture for several hundred years, to protect her innocent life by keeping her away from such evil?

But of course, as simpering pollyannas outraged that truth is not taboo here, “both” of you turn a blind-eye toward, if not completely condone, known evil in America as well.

“The curse comes not without cause.”

Aquagirl

June 30th, 2011
7:57 am

“That young lady died for the country, as sure as any soldier did.”

Well said, Senator Isakson. And Jim, good luck to your daughter.

Shar

June 30th, 2011
10:26 am

My 21-year-old daughter is strongly considering joining the Peace Corps. This story does nothing to ease my mind about this possibility. I wonder why the Puzey family, and Senator Isakson, encourage such service in the face of the program’s significant personal risk and the government’s lack of concern, especially for female volunteers? Mr. Galloway, how did your family prepare your daughter for the possibility of harm?

Newt is nuts

June 30th, 2011
11:00 am

Cherokee, in case you are still following this particular blog, most of us know that Will Jones is a lunatic that — so far — the AJC has not been able to stop from spewing his venom. The best solution is to simply ignore his rants.

Lee Weber

June 30th, 2011
11:12 am

Great column, Jim. Kudos.

Tom

June 30th, 2011
11:15 am

Will Jones’ brain development got stuck somewhere back here.

GaBlue

June 30th, 2011
11:37 am

From the posts we read from week to week, it’s easy to write off Mr. Jones as being bat-poo crazy. (I have, more than once.) However, most crazy has grains of truth in there somehwere. In this case, he is acknowledging a murderous, violent, exploitive history and culture that is hard for most modern Americans to imagine. How could a young, idealistic American woman begin to know the danger she was in for speaking against a man in that culture in his own land?

As the parent of an idealistic, passionate young woman myself, my heart goes out to the family, and I applaud Sen. Isakson’s efforts here. No doubt! But let’s not sweep reality under the rug just because Mr. Jones speaks of evil every day. Evil DOES exist, all around us, and here at home too. Pretending it doesn’t won’t make it go away. Just sayin’.

Politi Cal

June 30th, 2011
11:59 am

Soem of you people didn’t have breakfast this morning. Go back and start over.

Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

June 30th, 2011
12:09 pm

I thank G-d for your comment, “GaBlue.”

freddy

June 30th, 2011
12:35 pm

Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the f***g Peace Corps. …

Savard

June 30th, 2011
12:42 pm

Tragic story. Sincere sympathies to the young lady’s family.

I liked Isakson before, but he’s now moved up a couple more notches in my estimation.

You know Benin receives some kind of U.S. handout (doesn’t everyone?). The State Dept. needs to make it crystal clear that the money flow could be cut off if this case isn’t handled properly.

Robert

June 30th, 2011
1:57 pm

Jim,
Great story and of all Senators to see step up this way it is not a shock that it is Johnny. He has taken a great deal of abuse from the zero tolerance idealist but has seemed to stay true to the belief that people, especially kids, are what matter. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Jay

June 30th, 2011
3:42 pm

The problem lies with white fathers allowing their white daughters to go off to these third-world countries. A father’s job is to protect his daughter, not indulge her naive, feel-good fantasies of helping the less fortunate in a foreign land. There are plenty of white communities in this country that could use outside help in developing their areas. But unfortunately for them, too many young whites have been brainwashed by the media and their peers into thinking they must go to Africa, Asia or South America. Obviously these young whites have been bombarded with messages of white guilt and feel they must atone for something they never did.

Senator Isakson is not helping matters; he is part of the problem. The peace corps doesn’t need whistleblower status, it needs to be shut down. The federal government should not be in the business of shipping young white women overseas to be raped.

I’m sorry for the Puzey family’s loss. But let this be a warning to all white fathers — and that includes you Mr. Galloway!

ANGRY AS HELL

June 30th, 2011
3:51 pm

The problem with Will Jones is not that he’s crazy. He’s not. He’s a very bright man. He just happens to simply be a religious bigot who has decided that anyone who worships in a Roman Catholic church or who is proud to say he or she is Roman Catholic is a evil and supports the Anti-Christ. It is easy to understand people like Will Jones if one has a sense of the bigotry against Roman Catholics that has existed since the Reformation.

Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

July 1st, 2011
7:32 pm

Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

July 3rd, 2011
12:03 am

Hope everybody read my response. Conceding the point would be gracious on AAH’s part.

ANGRY AS HELL

July 3rd, 2011
12:39 pm

Sorry, Will. I’m not a Facebook subscriber so the link does me no good.

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Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

July 3rd, 2011
10:53 pm

AAH – To advance understanding, might you do the operation or two to subscribe, read my heartfelt response to you, then unsubscribe? I could post it to a Yahoo account probably. Would like for you to better understand my position. It’s about history and politics, factional analysis, not the Reformation.

Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

July 3rd, 2011
10:56 pm

My address is tjwhig@gmail.com
I’d be happy to send my response to you in reply.

Will Jones - Atlanta Jeffersonian Exegesis

July 4th, 2011
4:59 am

This needs no log-in:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YpPJBSP6_OF4qjwuJHsXQlUYofJzst0WleLJz5EkqH8/edit?hl=en_US

Thanks, and Happy Fourth of July. May G-d bless America.