Thank you for inviting me here today. It means so much to us that the community of returned Peace Corps volunteers has welcomed the families of fallen volunteers and remembers those that we collectively lost.
Words cannot convey just how special my big brother Jeremiah was. He wasn’t just funny, he was hilarious. He wasn’t just kind. He went out of his way to take care of and protect others. He could charm anyone and everyone in a really unique and genuine way, and he did it all with his signature, thick Boston accent!
Despite being such a well-liked and well-loved guy, he was hard on himself and unsure of what to do with his life. Peace Corps changed that. I think he was pretty amazing to begin with, but meeting the challenges of Peace Corps service shaped him and gave him purpose.
I knew as soon as he was accepted that I would visit him in Niger – and I am so grateful that I did. I got a sense of the man he was becoming, the grown up he would have been. He was fluent in Zarma. He had fallen in love with a fellow volunteer. He was planning to go to graduate school and to pursue a career in international development. He showed me some of the work he had accomplished with local masons, and I saw the relationships he had developed with them, including the way he made them laugh even in another language. Despite looking skinnier than I’d ever seen him, I knew he was happy and thriving.
I have to admit that I was disappointed when he decided to extend his service for a third year, but I was also very proud of him and thrilled that he would come home for a visit in between. I actually spoke with him and bought him his plane ticket the day before he died.
It was 1997 when he swerved his truck to avoid hitting a man on a dusty road in Niger. He was 26, and I was 22.
I wanted to do something that would honor his life, but it wasn’t clear for several more years what that should be.
A reporter called me and told me he was researching all Peace Corps deaths. When he mentioned the number of other volunteers who had died in service, I think he was expecting a different response – but what I really felt was an immediate longing to find their families. I managed to get a list of the fallen volunteers, and it turned out to be a program from a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps. At that time, there was really nothing on the internet about Peace Corps volunteers who had died in service. So, with the names from that program, I created the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project.
My mother and I began searching for and writing to the families of other volunteers who had died and also hoped that those we couldn’t find would see the site and write to us. They did write, which told us that they were looking too.
We also heard from many of you in the returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, which told us that you were thinking of and looking for your fallen friends as well.
My brother would not have wanted a memorial to himself. He wouldn’t want me to tell just his story, but I think he would approve of celebrating the lives of all fallen Peace Corps volunteers:
with the purpose of comforting their mothers and sisters, fathers, brothers & friends.
and with the purpose of inspiring others to serve.
I really do believe that memorials are inspiring – whether it is a service like this one today, a website, or an actual monument. We all lead busy lives, with little time to pause. Memorials make us stop and reflect. They remind us of the ideals that unite us.
I also believe that remembering those who did not return from Peace Corps service gives weight to the service of those of you who did return.
In the beginning, I wondered when the grief would fade. Now I know, nearly 20 years later, that it is still hard – that we still miss him terribly and tangibly.
But I know that he has also given our own lives purpose and that his presence is still felt in many ways. Sometimes I’ll see his smile in my son’s smile or his humor in my daughter’s silly dances.
Just a few days ago, I spoke with a friend and fellow volunteer of my brother’s who currently lives in Tajikistan with his family. He credits Jeremiah with convincing him to stick it out in the Peace Corps when he was ready to give up. He has gone on to become an economic development expert, met his wife through his work, has two beautiful children, and has lived all over the world them – none of which he says would have happened if it weren’t for Jeremiah.
He wrote a letter to my mother saying “Jeremiah lived his life with presence and force…Please live with the certainty, as I do, that other great things are occurring, unknown to us and unmarked by his name, which would not have happened if Jeremiah never were. The energy he released still ripples through, affecting people all around the world.”
I take comfort in the good that continues both marked and unmarked by the names of all fallen Peace Corps volunteers. They are linked to projects that send girls to school, put books in libraries, staff clinics, provide clean water, protect the environment, and more.
I also take comfort in the good that continues because of you all that are gathered here today and others like you, feeling the presence of our fallen and carrying our memories with us as inspiration.
Chelsea Mack, sister of Fallen Peace Corps Volunteer Jeremiah Mack
Hains Point, October 2015