The life-altering sacrifices are always there, the recognition is conspicuously missing: Update on Sara Thompson

Thompson’s story was revealed in Whistleblower Network News Whistleblower of the Week series on November 9, 2020. Thompson started her Peace Corps posting in August, 2010. Shortly afterwards Thompson was mandated to take an anti-malaria medication called mefloquine. Prior to Thompson taking her posting in Africa, there had been several alarms raised about mefloquine. The U.S. Army had noted warnings against the drug, and the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine noted deaths in mefloquine users, including neuropsychiatric adverse effects.

Thompson had received no warnings, and she started experiencing several health issues from the drug. During the 2 years of Peace Corps service, Thompson suffered greatly from mefloquine toxicity, both in Africa and upon arriving back in the United States. In 2014, Thompson filed a claim with the Peace Corps for injury and damage, and was rejected. In 2016 Thompson filed a lawsuit for damages and the case was dismissed because of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) which had a “Foreign Country Exception.”

Thompson then filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel which was rejected because Peace Corps volunteers are not considered federal employees. Thompson noted that speaking up against the Peace Corps is seen like “punching a puppy” in some people’s eyes.

Since her return to the United States, Thompson has pursued a Ph.D at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. She is an advocate for those who served in the Peace Corps who suffered from medical negligence, injuries or illnesses because of their service, as volunteers cannot access health care from the Department of Labor, Federal Employees Compensation Act for health issues stemming from their service.

Thompson still suffers from the effects of mefloquine toxicity, but has spent years lobbying Congress for change in the Peace Corps. She has spent untold hours having conversations with Congressional staffers regarding Peace Corps reform. She helped to draft and pass Peace Corps reform legislation, The Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act of 2018. She continued pressing for reform, not only in medical coverage for Peace Corps volunteers, but Peace Corps volunteers receiving whistleblower protection and having the same benefits as federal employees.

It has not been easy: the Peace Corps has not been receptive to reform, and some politicians like Senator Corker opposed substantive change. Senator Bob Menendez has been fully supportive and Thompson has worked closely with his staff. After years of hard work by Thompson, she finally saw a Bill cited as “Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2022,” and it contains many reforms Thompson had pushed for since her return in 2012 from the Peace Corps in Africa. The Bill contains language covering health care for returned Peace Corps Volunteers and strengthens whistleblower protection.

Thompson not only took her fight to Congress, but she also enlisted powerful allies along the way, presenting premier whistleblowing attorney Stephen Kohn to advocate for whistleblower protection in the legislation. Thompson knows the Bill has to work its way through the system, but she stands ready to offer her support and expertise no matter how long it takes.

Showing resilience, integrity and courage, Thompson not only worked on making the Peace Corps a better place for volunteers, but she also has taken a leading role at The Lamplighter Project, which “encourages whistleblowing activity in law enforcement by removing barriers to reporting, preventing retaliation, and elevating ethical officers.” Thompson is currently Chair of the Board.

Thompson chooses to continue her fight for reform in the Peace Corps despite a host of barriers, and she should be honored.

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