Die-Hards

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.

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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.”

About joshcomix
Brooklyn-based cartoonist specializing in nonfiction comics about topics like Hurricane Katrina, the media, travel, and finance.

10 Responses to Die-Hards

  1. rojagato says:

    Being in a disaster or war zone, and in a mode where you are actually doing something (or think that you are), can seem more real than real life, especially when, like an aid worker, a journalist, or a Foreign Service spouse, you find yourself suddenly inserted into a place where you almost automatically have a social network in-country, a clear mission, and “situations” keep popping up. It’s really heady, really exciting, and I guess a certain person would get pretty addicted to it and keep re-upping. Having sort of been that certain person, I can totally relate. It isn’t healthy.

    • 4_eyez says:

      yoep, you hit it right on the head. it’s those “situations” which keep popping up, that feeling that since you’re a “veteran,” you — and only you — know how to handle it.
      where were you and what were you doing that you had these same experiences?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Michael Simon
    yo, glad to be back?
    Maybe we will cross paths next hurricane season down south, or somewhere in NYC in 2006 once we return. Your accounts rock. Thanks for sharing them.
    Michael and Megan in Mexico City.
    http://www.msimonphoto.com/southamerica
    http://www.meganlyles.com

    • 4_eyez says:

      Re: Michael Simon
      i am glad to be back, though it’s been slightly difficult adjusting to the different pace. i’m still decompressing. someone from my local chapter said it usually takes about a week-and-a-half to fully “recover.”
      thanks for all your feedback during my trip. i went back and looked at your and megan’s journal entries from your time in mississippi. pretty amazing stuff. (i even added some comments to select entries.) your photos are excellent.
      so now you guys continue your around-the-world trip. wow, i can’t imagine doing Red Cross combined with a backpacking tour. even though it makes sense somehow…
      did you and megan know i published a graphic novel (which i wrote & drew) about my travel adventures in southeast asia & central europe? it’s called A Few Perfect Hours. check it out when you get back!

  3. Anonymous says:

    dont throw us all in a stereotype
    I’m most certainly not a single twentysomething male.. in fact I’m as far from it as possible!
    I live life on the edge. I have dedicated my life to helping others, whether it is local or national. And I spent my 3 weeks in MS, and went home for 2. I kept in touch with the people I left behind in the RC and learned that they were very short staffed. So I re-upped, and stayed on for another 8 weeks. That was 2 weeks longer than I had planned, but my daughter came down to join up with our kitchen and we enjoyed having a “humanitarian Thanksgiving” experience, that I’m happy to say will be a new tradition in our family. We enjoyed sharing that last 3 weeks together.. My best friend also returned for a second 3 week deployment, and she wishes she could have stayed longer..
    I understand there is a common thread among most “long term” people.. they are either escaping reality, or have nothing pending to rush home to. But some of the people just enjoyed making a difference, being close to their “people”, and showing the “newbies” the ropes.
    Trust me, some of us stayed “first day fresh” right until the end. But you have to have a love and passion for helping people. Since I am an EMT in real life, that’s all I do every day is help people who need it.
    I would have stayed to the end if I could have, but I have a real life that includes bills, a spouse, and a mortgage that needs paid, and I knew that 11 weeks was my limit.
    I’m in contact with the long term staff left behind. The operations will only continue for a few more weeks.. we did a good job down there.. maybe we will meet up on the “next one” Just look for 2 insane ambulance girls with one beautiful young chick, and you will find the 3 of us!🙂

    • 4_eyez says:

      Re: don’t throw us all in a stereotype
      You know, looking back on my post, I think I didn’t properly convey how much I appreciated the die-hards. There’s no question that anyone who puts their own life on hold to help others — and then keeps it on hold longer — is someone to admire.
      The danger I saw was that many — not all — of the die-hards were getting burned out, or at least losing sight of the mission a little. Given the amount of energy it took for me to do my job well during my deployment, I couldn’t imagine continuing much beyond the three weeks I was there. But everyone has different energy levels, and different ways of expending it.
      Anyway, thanks for pointing out my oversight, and for embodying an alternative example. I respect the heck out of you, and am so glad you do what you do.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: don’t throw us all in a stereotype
        Oh believe me, I saw the same thing.. once people lost their momentum they started compromising their attitudes with the clients..
        I wish we had more time to have seen K35 in progress. It was run much different from our kitchen (K6/36/37) and I would have liked to see how you all did things (other than Thanksgiving day which was a mess for us logistically) I didn’t get to know many people from your kitchen, with the exception of Chris the Yard Dog. He is a great guy..
        Kudos to you for missing out on important events in your relationship to come help out. I believe it changed the lives of everyone involved, and a change for the good is something the world can use..

      • 4_eyez says:

        Re: don’t throw us all in a stereotype
        Kitchen 35 was great. Rob was an inspiring leader who really seemed to understand the mission and how to manage people.
        Did Chris finally get to be chief Yard Dog? By the time I left, he had already been at the kitchen for five or six weeks, doing every kind of crap job imagineable, and was hoping to be made top Dog. He deserved it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: don’t throw us all in a stereotype
        Absolutely, he became the top yard dog, and did a fine job of it too!! Squeaky became team leader for all K35 teams (maybe you already had teams at K35, I don’t know) and as far as I know, right now it is mostly k35 routes that are still open and being run.
        I heard Rob was a great KM. Too bad there was some controversy when he left the helm, I think a lot of that was probably over exaggerated and must have been frustrating. I know when our KM was fired a few weeks before, the rumor mill was rampant and it was this huge fiasco trying to weave through fact and fiction to get to the bottom of it. I hope that Rob got to leave with dignity and his reign as KM was not tarnished by the power hungry bureaucracy from headquarters.

  4. Anonymous says:

    don’t throw us all in stereotypes
    I suppose you could label me as a “diehard” but not the way that “4 eyes” describes it. I volunteered because I couldn’t stand to watch the suffering on TV any longer. My best friend & I put our lives on hold. We left behind our families, jobs, & our comfort zones. After serving 3 weeks in MS, we went home. Not feeling like we finished what we started, we went back. It was hard for me to leave again. My 11 year old daughter didn’t want me to leave but she is very mature in understanding why I needed to go back. I didn’t believe that “my people” couldn’t make it without me. That would be foolish thinking. Yes, it was wonderful to see the people I came to know but it was much more than that. In my heart it just felt like the right thing to do. People were in need. The good people of MS. lost their homes & K 37 was short on ERV drivers. If I could have stayed longer my 1st trip down, I would have. I would also have liked to stayed until the kitchen closed but I had a life back home; a daughter, husband, & extended family. My family needed me. I had a job to get back to. I was a part of the kitchen long enough to see it change from K6 to 36, & then 37. Like my best friend said, we’re EMTs. It’s in our nature to help those who are hurting, whether the pain is physical or emotional. We weren’t looking for romance, or a pat on the back. If anything, we were nervous because we were realistic about what we would encounter, & how life would be for us. The 1st few days were very stressful & I wanted to go home but I stuck it out. A good friend of mine passed away while I was gone also. What we did was very hard work; physically & mentally. It was also rewarding & humbling. So as you can see, it wasn’t a vacation. Would I have gotten burned out if I had stayed longer? Probably not, as long as I continued to take my days off. Will I do it again? I sure will! Why? Because it would be the right thing to do! Keep a lookout for us two crazy chicks, along with the beautiful chick! A.K.A. Laverne, Shirley, & Jackie O! Those of you who know us, I love y’all!!!

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