Bob Cowert: Why I Volunteer
Without my knowing it, the sequence of events that culminated with my decision to become a Red Cross volunteer started with a phone call on a cold February day in 2005.
My wife, Lisa, received this call from Dr. Axtman, direct from a field hospital in Al Asad, Iraq. Dr. Axtman called to inform us that our son, a Marine Corps corporal, had collapsed while on a mission. He was very sick. The diagnosis was double pneumonia, which developed into sepsis, a very dangerous condition. The doctor explained that his condition was critical and, in a delicate, roundabout way, was preparing us for the worst.
Subsequent phone calls over the next few days informed us that Ken made it through the critical phase and would be airlifted home for recovery. I later found out from my tough-as-nails son that before going on this mission with his squad, he felt feverish and ill, but declined to say anything. He explained that they had a job to do, had trained for it, and all the members of the squad were needed for its success. A fever (it was pushing 105 when he collapsed and the field medic checked it) was no reason to stay behind.
Ken’s recovery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, and a month at home after that, passed quickly. The final follow-up visit at Bethesda was an interesting one. The doctor explained that due to the injury to his lungs and respiratory system, she was offering to sign papers that would keep him stateside for the duration of his enlistment.
He refused. It was important to him, no, it was mandatory, that he return to his unit in Iraq. His team was there and he intended to go back. No other options. Case closed. She cleared him for duty and he was going back to war.
As a father, this was a tough one. I was so very proud of Ken and at the same time scared beyond words. He returned to Iraq, completed his tour of duty and later that year came back to us healthy and intact. Upon his return, after all the celebration had subsided, I thought about the gift I had been given. My son: alive, unharmed, home safe.
I did not know what to do; I just knew that I had to do something. I needed to give, give back, to somehow say a meaningful “thank you.” What do I have? What can I share? All I knew was that it had to be personal. Certainly not money; having three children cured me of any excess in that department. The only possibility was me, my time.
I spoke to Rose Marie Fajardo at the (former) Red Cross office in Nyack and immediately decided to volunteer and become one of the people who actually do something rather than just talk or dream about doing something.
Now, almost eight years later, with hundreds of responses on my résumé, my motives for volunteering have come full circle.
My son’s actions and safe return opened the door for me, but now I consider my continuing involvement more selfish than anything else. Let me explain: I enjoy helping people.
I feel a sense of importance and accomplishment being in a position to provide assistance to those in need.
I volunteer with the most incredible people. Like minded, down-to-earth people who share my own views about what we do. Which is, in a nutshell: On a disaster of any scale, those affected are our mission! We push our own lives aside and concentrate on assisting this person or family in their time of distress.
I drive home after a shift in New York City and am always reminded that my own life's problems are inconsequential compared to the disaster-related outcomes caused by fire, flood, negligence and so many other causes.
The above paragraph has an excess of I’s ... which is why I use the word selfish. Certainly, volunteering is not about me, but about my fellow members of the human race, those in need.
I thank the Red Cross for giving me the opportunity to work on the front lines. I will continue to—hopefully—shine a light in a person's life during a time of darkness.