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Paying it Forward in the Land of Smiles

One of the things I enjoyed and appreciated most about my time in the Navy is the way it supported community and humanitarian efforts. When ships pull into foreign ports, there are always opportunities for Sailors to donate time to a local charity or cause. Many times it involves refurbishing an orphanage or helping out at a school or hospital. The medical staff aboard ships often performs surgeries, dental work, immunizations and general medical support to people in countries who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship carrying a full complement of Marines, was on a port visit in Darwin, Australia when the 9-11 attacks occurred. I happened to be the ship’s public affairs officer at the time. The ship was immediately ordered to Afghanistan, but on the way we stopped in war-ravaged East Timor. This should give you some idea of how important it is to the Navy to provide humanitarian support to those in need. Only a select few of the ship’s personnel were allowed to go ashore, mostly medical and dental professionals, and security. I was allowed to go to as a Navy journalist in order to photograph and document the event. Adults and children were lined up around the block to receive medical attention. I gained a new respect for our Navy and Marine Corps doctors, corpsmen, dentists and dental assistants as they worked long and hard to treat as many people as possible. One visual I’ll never forget is a large jar, nearly full of teeth the dentists had pulled during the visit. We could only stay for a couple of days, but during that time, they helped hundreds of people. I worked at a California State Veterans Home in Chula Vista after retiring from the Navy, and a large part of my job there was to provide information to veterans, and to educate them on VA benefits. So, I still felt like I was helping folks in some way. I wouldn’t say I’m a philanthropist, but I do enjoy pitching in where I can, even if it’s only for personal satisfaction. I must admit, I was a little disappointed after moving to Thailand when I discovered my retirement visa not only disqualified me from having any kind of job, but also from volunteering. I had planned on finding some organization to donate a few hours of my time each week, not only to help others, but to add some meaning to my existence here. I thought the policy was a little strange, but the reasoning is, if an organization has a foreigner doing volunteer work, that work could just as easily be performed by a Thai employee. Therefore, volunteers take away jobs from Thais. I guess it makes sense. After all, it’s against immigration law for a foreigner to even join a band that earns money, or otherwise would prevent a Thai musician from performing a gig. It’s a sensitive issue. So, I decided to keep my “paying it forward” on a more personal level. I’ve had a few small jobs around the house and rather than do them myself (not like I don’t have the time), I’ll pay a Thai person to do it. I decided to repaint some old, wooden furniture on my front porch, I started sanding it and thought, “I wonder if my friend’s kid needs some work?” I called, and the next day the kid shows up and was tickled pink to do it, and he did a good job. I probably could’ve bought the same furniture new for what I paid him to sand it. I hear of people I know struggling to make rent, or needing to go see their parents in the country because of a health issues and often donate a little to the cause. One friend was having problems with her scooter, so I paid for some repairs. Everyone struggles a bit now and then. I guess the point I’m trying to get across is you don’t have to be part of an official, sanctioned organization to help others. There are opportunities presenting themselves all the time. Sometimes, you just have to be paying attention to realize it. Personally, I’d rather help a person I know needs it, but isn’t asking for it. It also doesn’t hurt to drop a coin in a cup, or transfer a few bucks to the donation account of someone you trust. The Navy programmed into me the importance of supporting one’s community. It’s up to the individual to figure out the best way to do that. For me, it’s actually a bit of a selfish act. I like to help others because of the way it makes me feel personally. I hope you’ll all do the same in your own way, even on a small scale. It just makes you feel better about who you are, and part of something a little bigger than yourself.