Jan Copeland defied the norm.
While most of his colleagues entering the fledgling Peace Corps in 1962 were driven by buoyant idealism, Copeland wanted a little excitement. He found it during a two-year stint teaching English to rural Farsi speakers under the watchful eyes of the Shah of Iran's secret police.
"It wasn't an altruistic decision," said Copeland, 63, of Los Alamitos. "The concept [of the Peace Corps] was nice, and it sounded like you got to go to some interesting places at an interesting time."
That mix of idealism and the personal thirst for adventure has been the driving force behind the Peace Corps since its inception 40 years ago, when President Kennedy issued a clarion call for young Americans to come together in an army of peace.
While the Peace Corps is recognized internationally as a unique catalyst for spurring change at the grass-roots level, its successes have been tempered by some very public failures. Since May, the agency has been the object of a federal inquiry into how it safeguards recruits after the disappearance of a 23-year-old Massachusetts volunteer in Bolivia.
The $275-million agency, which fields 7,300 volunteers in 75 countries, also has struggled to expand its overseas presence, missing a goal President Clinton set in 1998 to field 10,000 volunteers by 2000.
Now the Peace Corps is about to undergo a change at the highest levels as the Bush administration prepares to nominate former Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, a Bush political supporter with no overt background in humanitarian issues or international affairs, as its new director.
His nomination has drawn grumbles from some former volunteers who argue that President Bush should have dipped into the pool of 160,000 returned volunteers to find a director, instead of his political supporters. Yet most of the Peace Corps' 15 past directors came from outside the agency, many with little relevant experience.
More vexing to some former volunteers is Vasquez's lack of experience directing large organizations, said Hugh Pickens, a former volunteer in Peru now operating the Baltimore-based Web site http://www.peacecorpsonline.org.
"Mr. Vasquez appears to have no CEO experience," Pickens said. "This is a large organization. Basically, he's been an elected official and his position right now appears to be kind of a PR man. The director should be someone who has some experience as a manager of a large organization."
Vasquez has declined comment on his nomination while it is pending. The White House is conducting a background check before forwarding his name to the Senate for confirmation.
But Ellen Fields, spokeswoman for the Peace Corps, argued that Vasquez's involvement with the Boy Scouts of America, Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity provides sufficient experience for running the Peace Corps.
"I consider all of that humanitarian [experience]," she said. "We believe he's a wonderful candidate because he has a demonstrated history of political service."
Corps Faces Scrutiny Over Volunteer Safety
If approved by the Senate, Vasquez will lead an agency with an inconsistent past, but one that is on the upswing, enjoying bilateral support in Congress even as it faces scrutiny over how it keeps its far-flung volunteers safe.
Although Peace Corps volunteers live and work in largely remote villages around the world, they have never been targeted by terrorists--in part, supporters, say, because they are usually embraced by local communities.
However, over the last five years at least 13 volunteers have died while overseas, six of them murder victims.
Earlier this year, Walter Poirier, 23, of Lowell, Mass., was discovered missing after his parents reported to Peace Corps officials in Bolivia in early March that they had not heard from him in a month. An extensive search by Bolivian police and military forces, as well as a team of FBI investigators, has failed to turn up any leads.
A federal General Accounting Office report on July 20 concluded that the search for Poirier was hampered by his and local Peace Corps officials' failure to follow agency policies in maintaining contact. It also found that a local Peace Corps official lied to investigators and embassy officials "to deflect blame elsewhere because he felt responsible for not keeping a closer watch on Mr. Poirier."
"The problem is that because of their ineptitude, or seeming lack of controls, once they started looking for him, the trail was cold," said the missing man's father, also named Walter Poirier. "We had to alert them that he was missing. They didn't know."
Field, the Peace Corps spokeswoman, said the agency is studying the GAO report and has yet to formulate a response. She said there have been no changes in procedure or disciplinary action taken related to the case.