I wrote a little bit about Red Cross volunteers I ran across in Mississippi who didn’t seem emotionally, intellectually, or physically prepared to give what it takes. This time I want to write about their polar opposites, the die-hards. I started to run across them in the last week to ten days, folks who were extending their stays to four, five, or even more weeks. I even talked to a couple of guys who refused to put an end date to their work. They say they’re willing to stay for the “duration,” whatever that means.
|Aaron (l.) with Bill on Halloween
One die-hard is Aaron, who became a good buddy during my stay. He’s from Overland, KS, is about 6’2” and 225 lbs., sports a bandanna and a huge shaggy beard, grew up as a devout Christian, and used to be in the Air Force. His stint in the military changed a lot of the ideas he had growing up, and he’s in the process of “rediscovering” himself. We were all priviliged to be part of this. Aaron is given to rambling late-night conversations, administering hugs, wearing women’s clothes (our own resident Klinger!), and just generally being unpredictable. He’s an ERV driver who had already been deployed for some time before I got there. He’s got a regular route in DeLisle and he intends to stay until at least Thanksgiving!
The official R.C. policy on stays longer than three weeks is that you have to get approval from your local chapter and discuss the issue with a mental health worker. You’re also supposed to take mandated days off, something like one per week. People I knew like Aaron, had already stayed 4–5 weeks and hadn’t done any of those things. They simply just hung around, and the bureaucracy never caught up with them. With a couple of exceptions, these hard-core types were male, in their twenties, and unattached romantically. (In fact, some of them seemed to think if they stuck around long enough, they’d make a romantic connection. Stranger things have happened, I guess.)
As much as I admire the die-hards’ dedication, my feeling is that sticking around too long isn’t healthy. To indulge in a little pop psycho-analysis, my take on guys like Aaron was that they were searching — for meaning, for purpose, for love — and they thought they’d find the answers with the Red Cross. The problem with that goal is the environment in the hurricane zone is not “normal;” it’s surreal, and it’s not a template for the rest of one’s life. There’s a reason the organization tries to limit people to three-week assignments. They want fresh, idealistic volunteers, not manic burn-outs. You start to see the signs: the people who show up every day but become cynical, lose their positive energy, do their jobs by rote rather than with joy. Aaron wasn’t like that; but I could see it happening, even to him. And I saw in plenty of others. That is the danger of staying too long.
I struggled with the idea myself. I took only one day off in 21 days. In the last week, before the kitchens merged, we were short-staffed and it just didn’t seem right to miss a day. Then, when we had enough people again, I was given the day off the day before I was supposed to out-process. I begged the ERV coordinator to put me back on the active list (which she begrudgingly did). And as much as I was homesick and missed Sari, I found myself considering the idea of staying on. I wasn’t ready to leave my “people” on Long Beach C behind. I actually thought they needed me. But when I really thought about the situation, I saw that it was an unhealthy urge, that the trap was thinking of yourself as vital to the cause. No individual is irreplaceable; what’s vital is the organization as a whole, providing the services it does to the larger community.
All the same, I applaud Aaron and the die-hards, and hope they are able to recognize when they need to return to the “real world.”