WASHINGTON — In accepting the Suzanne McDaniel Public Awareness Award, Punxsy native and former Peace Corps volunteer Jessica Smochek said a world of heroes in which she once believed was destroyed after she was brutally attacked and raped while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh.
“In the real world, no one goes around looking for people to save,” she said, saying that these days, people are taught to “mind their own business.”
Smochek said her diminished belief in heroes was saved when she met people who were willing to help her and others who had suffered similar experiences — men and women who gave her a voice, helped transform her and helped her bring attention to her experience.
It has been a long and painful journey to find that voice, but today, Smochek — a 1999 graduate of Punxsutawney Area High School and daughter of Richard and Sharon Smochek — will be among those testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, which is investigating the Peace Corps’ alleged handling of more than a thousand cases of female volunteers who were raped or sexually assaulted over the last decade.
U.S. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) — who presented Smochek with the McDaniel award in April — called for the hearings after seeing an ABC News “20/20” investigation that aired in January.
Testimony was scheduled for earlier this year, but was delayed by the earthquake/tsunami in Japan and political unrest in the Middle East.
The “20/20” report described the experiences of six former Peace Corps volunteers and victims of sexual assault.
According to Poe’s office, most of the women said within the Peace Corps, there was a culture of blaming the victim, and that they felt they had no advocate in Washington to help cut through red tape to get counseling.
“The Peace Corps needs to get its act together and make sure the victims of rape have peace of mind when they are serving the United States,” Poe said.
Smochek received the Suzanne McDaniel Public Awareness Award from the Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus, which was founded by Poe and U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), for her work on behalf of victims.
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As an undergraduate at Berea College in Berea, Ky., Smochek was a sociology major focused on volunteerism who had traveled on several study-abroad trips to Thailand, Japan, Germany and Poland.
Joining the Peace Corps seemed like a natural fit.
“My two main profs were in Peace Corps, and one was in the original (formed by President John F. Kennedy), and they thought it would be a good fit for me,” she said.
Smochek figured after serving her 27-month assignment in Kishoregamj, Bangladesh, she would attend graduate school, and after that, “I would figure out exactly what I wanted to study. I knew there was a lot of need for health care in Bangladesh, but my secondary project was to work with a local hospital, and I was thinking about public health.”
That was before she arrived in Kishoregamj.
She said as soon as she set foot in the city, “It was a general feeling of not being welcomed, not being wanted in that city.”
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Smochek had been in Bangladesh for three months, but her problems in Kishoregamj began immediately — her first day — as she was knocked to the ground after exiting a rickshaw. In the “20/20” report, she described a group of young men who surrounded her, grabbed and pulled at her, eventually knocking her to the ground.
The same group of young men stalked Smochek and two other female Peace Corps volunteers in Kishoregamj over the next several months. She said she and the other volunteers documented each incident and presented their reports to Peace Corps officials who, she said, did nothing.
“We called in everything,” she said. “We called in, and there may have been some e-mail near the end. We did file written reports.
“We didn’t feel safe,” Smochek told ABC News. “We wanted to be pulled out of there.”
The same day in 2004 that Smochek reported yet another incident to police, she said the same group of young men accosted her while she was walking to her apartment in the early evening, dragged her down a side alley and began brutally beating and raping her.
“They just started saying, ‘We told you to stop talking, to stop going to the police,’” she told ABC News. “‘And now, you leave us no choice. We have to kill you.’”
They left her unconscious in the alley, her clothing torn from her body — “raped with their bodies, raped with foreign objects.”
When a decision was finally made to transport Smochek from Bangladesh, she said she believed the incident was covered up so as not to offend local officials. She said in fact, when she was scheduled for her return to the United States, the Peace Corps told her to tell other volunteers that it was because she needed work on her wisdom teeth.
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Back in the United States, Smochek said the Peace Corps detained her for 45 days of treatment and counseling, which she described as “completely inadequate.”
“It was more damaging than anything,” she said. “I was completely blamed for it. A counselor had me write out a list of everything that I had done wrong, and how I would have done things differently.”
Smochek said the Peace Corps’ plans for her included 45 days of treatment and a return to Bangladesh after a year.
But after undergoing her recommended days of treatment and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, Smochek was medically separated from the Peace Corps, after which she said she had to undergo a long process with the Department of Labor.
“Once you’re separated, the Peace Corps does not deal with you anymore,” she said. “You’re the Department of Labor’s problem. As far as getting medical treatment or counseling, I was having to find a (health) provider on my own. It’s still a battle to get service for today.
“Many people just give up,” Smochek said. “It’s too difficult with all the red tape.”
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Throughout her ordeal, Smochek, who now resides in Washington, D.C., has managed to make positive steps in her life. She earned a degree in public health and is now completing her first year of a master’s program in counseling.
Smochek worked in drug oncology for a period of time, but said she didn’t find it very rewarding, describing herself as a “hands-on” type of person.
“I’m just wanting to help, and counseling was a better fit for me — certainly with what I’m working on now, helping people as a survivor,” she said.
When Smochek is not studying for her master’s degree, she’s working with First Response Action, a group advocating for a stronger Peace Corps response for survivors or victims of crimes, physical or sexual assault and rape.
Smochek said she was referred to the group through a survey, after which she met the group’s founder, Casey Frazee, who had served with the Peace Corps in South Africa and was a member of the panel on “20/20.”
Smochek said ABC News approached her and the others for the “20/20” piece last September, and she finally agreed to it in November.
“I was not sure,” she said. “It took a while. Even as I sat there with the panel, I knew I was going to be the last to go. I thought that it might get to me, and I would not be able to do it.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” Smochek said. “I really hadn’t told my story until ‘20/20’ – not to the full extent, so that was very difficult for me.”
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March 11, Smochek, members of First Response Action and others held a candlelight vigil in Washington in honor of Kate Puzey and all victims of crimes during their Peace Corps service since 1961.
Puzey, 24, of Atlanta, had been volunteering in Benin, West Africa, when she was murdered after reporting a suspected child molester. ABC News also highlighted Puzey’s story in the “20/20” episode.
Smochek received a formal invitation to testify about her experience this week, after weeks and months of delays.
Despite her ordeal in Bangladesh, Smochek said she would not hesitate to recommend entering the Peace Corps to a willing volunteer — but within new guidelines.
“I fully support the Peace Corps,” she said. “I just want to work with the Peace Corps and Congress in creating a stronger, safer corps. I believe in its mission and ideals.”
Despite their best intentions and desires to serve, would-be Peace Corps volunteers should examine the big picture, Smochek said, and ask themselves: “Can I do this?”
“I would ask them to think clearly about what they want to do, and consider what they want to make it, and really research that country thoroughly as far as crime rates. Try to reach out and find out as much information before making a decision.
“I would just tell them to be cautious, and make sure it’s something they really want to do, and know that they can leave at any time.”