52: The Privilege of Service

52: The Privilege of Service

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Privilege of Service

Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all! By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.

~John Dickinson

The lights are on inside the Red Cross building. The emergency response vehicle and the van sit out front with their rear doors open. Guys are loading the boxes of comfort kits and snack bags we’re taking to the soldiers. It’s a few minutes before 6 a.m. and I’m on my way to a drive-through for breakfast biscuits. The city is gradually coming alive.

With a bag of fresh-baked sausage biscuits in hand, I pull into the Red Cross parking lot a few minutes later. The doors to the vehicles are closed now, but they’re both running, warming up for the ninety-minute drive to north Alabama on this chilly morning. Paul opens the front door of the building for me. Scotty, another volunteer, sits on the couch in the waiting area.

Larry hasn’t shown up yet. We eat our biscuits while we wait. As we start out the door, Larry pulls up. Scotty and Larry get into the ERV, Paul and I into the van.

Paul adjusts the heater and tests the radio, talking with Scotty in the ERV. He sets the portable global positioning system on the dash. As we pull out of the parking lot, the GPS indicates the anticipated time of arrival is 8:03 a.m. The deployment ceremony starts at 9, so we’ll have plenty of time to unload and set up inside the armory.

Approximately 163 Alabama National Guard soldiers from Winfield’s 166th Engineering Battalion are deploying to Afghanistan for the next year. Their families and friends will be with them today as they receive their orders. We’re carrying about two hundred comfort kits filled with toiletries and other personal items that we put into camouflage nylon bags a couple of weeks earlier. We also have two hundred snack bags for the soldiers to take on their long bus ride.

Looking at the snack bags in the back of the van, I flash back to the Friday afternoon when six of us assembled them. As I placed each item in the bag, I hoped the soldier opening it would appreciate the choices we made for them.

Paul hands me a folder of papers. I find the directions where we’re supposed to go upon arrival at the armory in Winfield and read them to him. The short speech he’s prepared is also there if I’m interested. He says he wasn’t sure what to say to these soldiers, knowing that some might not make it home. I’m feeling emotional; my stomach churns and my lips tremble slightly.

I tell Paul about the latest fallen warrior I wrote about for The Tuscaloosa News. I’m thinking if I can continue week after week for all these years (it’s been at least three now) to write these stories and talk to grieving families, surely I can make it through a deployment ceremony intact. But I’m having doubts.

At the armory, a young soldier directs us to the appropriate place to unload. It’s still early, but a number of soldiers are milling about, getting ready for the day. Several offer to help us. Inside the staging area, young children run around with mommies and grandparents following them. Soldiers greet each other as they arrive. Families and friends of all ages and colors walk around wishing the soldiers a safe trip. Others sit quietly waiting for the ceremony to begin.

More volunteers arrive. We put on the Red Cross aprons so we’re easily recognizable and listen to Paul’s instructions on how the morning will proceed. We will distribute the kits and snack bags at the end of the ceremony but before the soldiers break formation. With twelve of us, we don’t expect it to take too long.

I’m seeing the soldiers through my own filters. This is someone’s son or daughter. It’s also someone’s husband or wife or sweetheart and someone’s best friend. My heart aches. A strong sense of pride to be part of this day swells from deep within me. I realize similar events happen around the country all the time. And often the units are much larger, affecting even more people.

The armory fills up. No chairs remain, so people stand along the wall, many holding squirming toddlers or infants.

The emcee announces that a young musician will perform a song he wrote for his brother, one of the deploying soldiers. As he sings, I find I can hardly believe the enormity of what’s happening.

I fight tears. I envision my son, revisiting the terror I felt the day we entered Iraq six years ago — with him among the first troops going in — and all the weeks that followed until he came safely home. I survived that; surely, I can make it through this. The national anthem plays. The soldiers salute and the rest of us place our hands over our hearts. I’ll just have to cry; there’s no point resisting now. That only makes it worse. I breathe deeply and let a few tears roll down my cheeks. We’re all moved. I’m not alone in this. I can see it in the faces all around me.

The dignitaries and officers weave through the rows of soldiers, shaking hands with each one. Some even walk along our row of volunteers, thanking us for our support. Paul goes to the podium. He’s nervous. He doesn’t like public speaking. He and the head of the Jasper Red Cross chapter each say a few words. We line up and start to deliver the bags. We quickly distribute them, moving even faster than we thought. I express Godspeed and thanks to each person I hand bags to and shake some hands. One guy reaches out and hugs me. “I prefer hugs,” he says. That’s fine with me.

We finish and the soldiers are dismissed. They won’t actually be leaving until early the next morning, but they’re now officially launched. Many come to thank us as they break rank. Their families and friends thank us, too.

We walk past one soldier holding a small infant in her arms, not more than a couple of weeks old. I ask if it’s hers. “Yes, this is little Joshua,” she says. Oh goodness, I think. This baby will be walking the next time he sees his mom.

The empty boxes are loaded back into the vehicles and we’re ready to return to Tuscaloosa. We say farewell to the other volunteers. Many of the soldiers are already enjoying the snack bags, sharing them with children and friends. There may not be much left by the time they board the bus, but they got the message.

On the way back, Paul and I debrief. Neither of us had known what to expect, but we’re pleased. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the soldiers and their families on this poignant occasion. I love being part of an organization committed to making such a difference for people. I thank Paul for the profound privilege of serving today and being served in return. He slowly nods his understanding.

~Jane Self

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