Ernie Lenz's life has been one filled with service to his country. His 37-year career with the armed forces included everything from enlistment in the Army to working in the Medical Service Corps to leading a medical training team in El Salvador.
Retired military officer Ernie Lenz, shown at center, now teaches hygiene in a Guatemalan community.
Today this high-ranking retired military officer's job is very different as he works with Guatemalan schoolchildren, teaching them basic hygiene - like the proper way to brush their teeth - in areas susceptible to health problems.
How did this psychologist and Army colonel end up working with young children in a remote mountain town in a foreign land? It's simple he says: he wanted to continue his service to others and wouldn't choose to be anywhere else.
Following his retirement from the armed forces in 1995, Colonel Ernie Lenz was looking forward to kicking back and enjoying life full time. Yet, throughout his various adventures as a retiree - from backpacking in Europe and New Zealand to crewing sailboats in the Gulf of Mexico to obtaining an additional master's degree in public health - Ernie recalls missing "the sense of public service I felt in the Army."
In addition, Ernie also had a strong desire to give something back after enjoying a rich and vibrant life. Recalling fondly the ideals expressed by President John F. Kennedy in founding the Peace Corps, he looked up the Peace Corps' website. He liked what he saw and decided to apply to become a volunteer.
Ernie, 67, can now be found in a lakeside town of around 50,000 inhabitants nestled in the Guatemalan highlands. He describes his primary project as, "a preventative medicine program designed to have children practice healthy habits in school on a daily basis." While it may seem like common practice to most Americans, most of the students Ernie assists have never owned a toothbrush, nor would they have known how to use it without Ernie's help and teaching at the school.
By collaborating with parents, teachers, administrators, nongovernmental organizations and government officials, Ernie hopes to get the two schools with which he works certified as "Healthy Schools" by his Peace Corps program. A school must meet several standards to achieve this designation, such as reaching the goal of 80 percent of the students regularly brushing their teeth after the school snack. He also trains teachers on new methods for teaching health.
Since joining the Peace Corps in 2003, Ernie has found it to be, "an honor and a privilege to represent our country to the world. For this older American, the Peace Corps offers the opportunity to cap one's life with service to others. It is truly a worthwhile experience. We get to know other cultures as a tourist never could."
Ernie believes that many other Americans, retired from military careers, could find volunteering with the Peace Corps to be a rewarding, enjoyable, and fulfilling way to spend their retirement. "By your service in the armed forces, you have answered the call of that distant inauguration address to 'ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.' In the Peace Corps, you can keep on contributing," he said. "Whatever your job was in the military, you developed leadership and management skills that will greatly contribute to the success of any Peace Corps project. In addition, you have many other skills to bring to the world. There are a lot of people out there who need and will appreciate your skills."
In Guatemala, Ernie revels in the strong sense of community and the focus on friendships at his site-a sensation he feels is often missing from the fast-paced life of the U.S.
As an older volunteer, Ernie has enjoyed bonding with, supporting, and assisting younger Peace Corps volunteers as they discern their future educational and professional paths. "The relationships you form with fellow volunteers are similar to the feeling of pride you have in a highly functioning military formation. We, Peace Corps/Guatemala, are a family."
Ernie strongly encourages mature Americans to consider this opportunity to share of themselves and their culture. "If an older American has reasonably good health, he or she can become a volunteer. Never fall into the trap of thinking you are 'too old.' The Peace Corps provides excellent health care. Just make up your mind to do it and then do it," he said.
Ernie is one of more than 4,000 current and past Peace Corps volunteers who have served as volunteers in Guatemala since the program opened in 1963.
When in the U.S., Ernie Lenz calls Austin, Texas, home. He has two sons and a daughter and three grandchildren. Ernie received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Loyola University of Chicago and holds a master's in public health from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Last updated Jan 22 2013