Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Catherine “Kate” Puzey could probably be described as an all-American girl, even though she spent most of her life outside the United States. Born in Germany to the parents of teachers in U.S. Department of Defense Dependent schools, Kate’s family moved to Okinawa Japan when she was nine. There, she was student council President her junior and senior years, and graduated at the top of her class. She attended college at Virginia’s College of William and Mary majoring in sociology with a minor in business.
Following her graduation, Kate spent a year with the International Rescue Committee and then joined the Peace Corps as the rest of her family settled in Georgia. Her work on behalf of issues related to women and children led her to the West African nation of Benin where she taught school. When she discovered that children in her village were being sexually exploited by a co-worker, she went to great efforts at great personal risk to report the crimes. Days later, she was found murdered on the porch of her home.
Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson learned about Kate from the news accounts of her death. He attended her funeral, and working with her family, became a champion for her cause. As the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on African Affairs, he joined California Senator Barbara Boxer in sponsoring the “Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011” to provide better security and protection measures for Peace Corps volunteers.
The law will extend whistleblower protection to volunteers of the Peace Corps, protections that currently exist for federal employees but did not for Kate at the time of her murder. In addition, the law will require the Peace Corps to develop sexual assault risk reduction and response training. This training will be tailored to the specific countries in which volunteers are serving.
In an era of bitter partisanship and a divided Congress, the legislation passed the Senate unanimously in September and the House earlier this month. The Puzey family joined Isakson at the White House as President Obama signed the bill into law on Monday.
Isakson’s involvement in the case extends well beyond legislative efforts to protect current and future Peace Corps volunteers. He continues to work with federal authorities to seek justice for Kate and her family.
This past June, he traveled to Africa and met with Benin’s President Boni Yayi. The two discussed the case for over 2 hours, where Isakson urged Yayi to allow the FBI to investigate the murder. Isakson carried with him a letter from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to illustrate the importance the U.S. government places on the Puzey case. Isakson met again with President Yayi during a July visit to Washington D.C. President Obama also addressed the investigation with him in an official visit the same day.
Thus far, Benin has resisted outside efforts to assist in the investigation. Three suspects including a Peace Corps co-worker of Puzey’s and his brother who worked in Benin’s Peace Corps headquarters where Puzey reported the sexual assaults remain in jail as a magistrate investigates the case. An appeals court is expected to rule soon on whether to allow the FBI to assist in the case.
On a day when news out of Washington was dedicated to the failure of yet another attempt at bipartisan compromise, it is refreshing to highlight the work of a Georgia Senator who has made a career of finding issues that matter to his constituents and championing their cause from concept to law. Many pols would look at this issue and see little political upside, and decide that other issues are more camera ready. When one of our own takes the role of statesman over politician, we should take note.
Furthermore, we should take a moment this week as we count our blessings for Kate Puzey and people like her. Protections we take for granted in our own country are unknown concepts in many parts of the world. Those who would stand up for basic human rights while trying to make the world a better place get too little attention and too little reward for their efforts. For Kate Puzey and her family, at a minimum, we can and should offer a prayer of thanks.