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.
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.”
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