Peace Corps Boots HIV-Positive Volunteer

Jeremiah Johnson was kicked out, and now he's considering a lawsuit.

May 9, 2008 — -- Jeremiah Johnson was still reeling from test results showing he was HIV-positive when he received even more bad news in January.

The 25-year-old Peace Corps volunteer teaching English at a high school in the Ukraine was kicked out of the Corps.

Johnson was informed by the Corps, the legendary federal agency that has placed generations of volunteers in impoverished and needy areas around the world, that he was on "automatic medical separation," which disqualified him from serving in another country.

Now Johnson, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, is considering a lawsuit against the Corps, claiming that it was discriminating against him because of his HIV status.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"I couldn't believe it," Johnson, who is now back in the U.S., waiting tables at restaurants in Denver, told

"It's very disillusioning. The Corps is a very progressive organization and the fact that their policy is so behind the times is really disappointing."

Johnson, who was teaching English at a high school in the town of Rozdilna, says that several days after his test results, the agency's office in Kiev told him that he had to leave due to Ukrainian law, which does not permit foreigners with HIV to work in the country.

When he came back to Washington, he was hoping to transfer to another country. "But they simply informed me that when you're HIV positive, it's an automatic medical separation."

Johnson isn't interested in returning to the Corps, since his term was almost up at the time, but he wants to change the agency's policy "so that this doesn't happen to another volunteer in the future."

His lawyer at the ACLU, Rebecca Shore, says that "we have heard from another returned Peace Corps volunteer who was HIV-positive and was medically separated."

A spokeswoman for the Corps, Amanda Beck, said she was not able to discuss the matter because Johnson has not officially waived his privacy rights.

"The Peace Corps policy is to consider every applicant and volunteer individually," she said. "We do not automatically disqualify because of HIV."

Informed about the Corps' statement, Shore said, "That being said, here is what they did: medically separating him because he was HIV positive."

According to a notification form Johnson received from the Peace Corps, the reason provided for his medical separation was "HIV - lab work positive."

In addition, the Corps listed several other reasons: the resolution of his condition would last longer than the maxium allowable 45 days, the Corps is unable to provide adequate follow-up for his condition overseas, his medical condition has a high risk of being aggravated by or recurring during his service and he would be medically unable to perform his assignment.

Former volunteers were surprised at the decision, including Michael McColly, the HIV-positive author of "The After-Death Room," a memoir on the work of AIDS activists around the world. McColly was not HIV positive when he served in the Corps.

"I'm appalled. The Peace Corps has been zeroing in on HIV prevention everywhere in the world, but to think that they would "kick out" someone for contracting the virus is the height of hypocrisy," he wrote in an e-mail.

Hugh Pickens, the publisher and editor of Peace Corps Online, a Web site for former volunteers, e-mailed that the agency would normally find a country willing to accept a volunteer who is HIV positive unless it was contracted as a result of irresponsible behavior.

Johnson maintains that he was not irresponsible and that he remains completely healthy.

"In the most recent results, my viral load dropped by about a half and I have no symptoms. I have no plans to go on medication and right now I'm just trying to get my life back together."

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events