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Peace Corps volunteers reunite in Park City

Sierra Leone conjures visions of war in Africa with rebels fond of chopping off the limbs of enemies, orphaned children and massacred villages afire. The coastal West African nation made headlines as civil war tore apart the country for more than a decade.

The capital, Freetown, is a bustling city and the land of contradictions boasts a rich supply of diamonds which is what brought Sierra Leone into America’s living room in 2006 in the popular film "Blood Diamond."

"When I saw the movie ‘Blood Diamond,’ that was just so intense, I just couldn’t deal with it," ex-Parkite George Gatewood said at the reunion of a group of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who served in Sierra Leone in the 1960s.

Twenty-one former teachers are gathered at the Washington School Inn this weekend to reminisce about their experiences among the first 5,000 people who joined the Peace Corps, created by John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.

"I don’t know if I ever want to go back to Sierra Leone," Gatewood said. "For me, it’s just so depressing."

Government coups were the norm in the 1990s until United Nations peacekeepers clamped down at the turn of the century. War by then had brutalized Sierra Leone.

"We were there when Sierra Leone was at its best," Gatewood said, adding that the country had just gained independence when he arrived in 1963. "It slowly got worse and worse until they had the military revolt and overthrew the elected president."

Even outside the capital Susie McIntyre said in the Peace Corps she wasn’t afraid to stroll in Africa alone.

"I was never afraid to even go out at night," she said.

Lawrence Hunter, another group member in Park City for the reunion, described traveling overland to Freetown from Dakar, Senegal in the early ’60s.

"There was no fear A woman could have traveled anywhere safely," Hunter said. "It’d be much more dangerous today than it was way back."

The capital city became a hub when the friends were assigned throughout Sierra Leone.

"People from up country would come in occasionally on weekends and we would gather in big parties," former Peace Corps volunteer Doug Van Nostran said.

Sipping on wine in Park City Von Nostran said he took valuable lessons home from West Africa more than 40 years ago.

"They’re more free-wheeling in the way they do things. We’re just so uptight and everything has to be timed and synchronized and orchestrated — where’s my iPod with my BlackBerry," Von Nostran said, adding that America is "over-organized." "I think it took me 20 years after I came back to get over the experience."

A call to serve

"We were a lot more naive then and Kennedy just captured our imaginations. It was like, ‘Yes, let’s do that, let’s join the Peace Corps and go off and save the world,’" Gatewood said. "The nation is just a lot more cynical now and the younger people are more apathetic."

The self-described group of former "wild-eyed idealists" was in the Peace Corps in West Africa from 1963 to 1965. The reunion today in Park City is the group’s fifth.

"I think we all sold out to a certain extent," Gatewood said admitting he couldn’t identify Sierra Leone on a map when called to serve.

Group member Freddie Liebermann described being in Sierra Leone when she learned Kennedy had been assassinated.

"They loved him," Liebermann said.

Sadly, "materialism seems to have taken over politics," ex-Peace Corps volunteer Harriett Marquis said.

"I think there was an idealism of a sort that took us to Sierra Leone but I think we came back and faced reality. We got jobs, we got mortgages," Marquis said. "We were privileged really to be able to go with the Peace Corps and fulfill these idealistic notions. It was an opportunity because I would have never gone trekking in Africa by myself."

Gatewood added,

"That’s why I’m glad we did it when we did it."

"Young people today are apolitical as opposed to nonpolitical. They don’t think that politics is anything for them to get involved with," he lamented.


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