Ukraine crisis worries Clarksville Peace Corps veteran

Clarksville resident leaves much behind in early exit from unrest

March 20, 2014|By Pete Pichaske

When Peggy Walton returned to Ukraine six months ago, 20 years after a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer, she only wanted to quell her own restlessness and satisfy her curiosity about how the country had changed. 

Little did the retired Howard Community College professor know she'd wind up in the middle of a riveting international crisis that would force her to flee the country, leaving behind an unfinished job, worried Ukrainian friends and many of her personal possessions. 

Now, Walton is back in her Clarksville condominium, sad that her stay ended so abruptly and worried about the future of a country and a people she loves. 

"I feel as if I'm grieving," said Walton, 67, sitting in her kitchen next to a wall adorned with colorful, hand-painted Ukrainian plates. "I follow what's going on there as much as I can tolerate it, but I just get really sad. That's part of my grieving over this: Sadness about their country and what's going on there." 

An English teacher with a doctorate, Walton has lived in Howard County since 1980. She's been active in her community, serving as president of her condo association and a volunteer for several causes, including work with a hospice bereavement group. Still, she has a restlessness and a passion for travel. 

She wanted to join the Peace Corps when she was younger, she said, but life intervened in the form of a marriage and two children. 

But in the mid-1990s, divorced and with her two sons grown, she saw the opportunity to rekindle that dream, and she signed up. In 1994, the Peace Corps sent her to the eastern Ukraine city of Dnipropetrovsk for 27 months, to train native English teachers at a professional development center. 

Ukraine had won independence from Soviet rule only a few years earlier and was still a poor country in many ways, Walton recalled. Despite the challenges of living in such a place, isolated in many ways from family and friends, her stay was rewarding, and she considered her two-plus years there a "peak experience" in her life.  Still, she had no plans to return. 

Walton is an inveterate traveler, one who has visited countries from New Zealand to Ecuador. And last year, retired from HCC and growingly restless, she stumbled on an Internet announcement for Peace Corps Response Volunteers, former volunteers who rejoin the corps for shorter stints in the country they'd previously served. 

That was all it took. "When it popped up on the Internet, I said, 'Wow, this is meant to be,' " she recalled. "So I just said, 'Yes,' and off I went again."

 Some who knew her were not so sure about the trip, Walton conceded.

"A lot of my friends, who were also retired, looked at me and said, 'What are you doing? Why? Why? You have the good life here. You're retired, you've got friends, you do a lot of volunteer work. You've got a dog, you've got grandchildren … So what's the deal?' " she said. "But they came to understand I needed more stimulation and meaning, and still had some juice in me to teach."

Back to Ukraine

In September 2013, Walton arrived in the western Ukraine city of Lutsk for what was to be a 10-month stay. Two months later, the civil unrest that was to topple the pro-Russian government and lead to the current crisis began.

Like just about everyone else. Walton was surprised.

"I had no sense the national and political fervor would be unleashed like this," she said. "It was very gratifying, in many ways. This is a country with a very short history of independence. They are not used to making a difference in their lives. For them to get out and protest and actually bring down the government was startling." 

The worst of the protests were in Kiev, the capital. Walton said she never felt unsafe in Lutsk.

"There were protests and gatherings of people, but there was never any violence when I was there," she said. "It did happen, but later, when I wasn't there." 

Still, the mounting tensions began to affect all Peace Corps volunteers. In late January, with the crisis escalating Peace Corps volunteers were told not to travel. For Walton, that would have meant canceling a planned trip to Berlin to visit a friend. 

A week or two later, however, the ban was lifted, and she flew to Berlin. But not long after she arrived in Berlin, the ban was reinstated. Shortly after that, Ukraine was deemed no longer safe and all 250 Peace Corps volunteers were sent home. 

For most volunteers, that meant a rapid exit from an increasingly tense environment: Even in relatively quiet Lutsk, a police station was vandalized and burned, and Peace Corps volunteers were not allowed outside at night.  

For Walton, the evacuation meant she never got back to Kiev or Lutsk. On Feb. 22, halfway into her scheduled 10-month second stint in Ukraine, she flew back to Washington, leaving most of her possessions behind in Lutsk. 

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