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Making a difference

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- When I arrived to my second duty assignment in May 1993 as an Airman 1st Class, I didn't make the trip alone. Sitting in the trunk of my newly purchased 1986 Pontiac Grand Am were several boxes of finished and unfinished artwork - or more precisely, ceramics. As a 22-year-old Airman with a basic pay of $845 I opted to pick-up a cheap $10-a-project hobby to make the cold Michigan winters at my first duty location pass by quicker. Before I knew it, they filled my dormitory room which became a conversation starter anytime someone stopped by my room at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich.

Shortly after arriving at Griffiss AFB in Rome, N.Y., I decided to go for a drive outside the Mohawk Gate to familiarize myself with the local area. Totally without provocation, I found myself pulling into the local nursing home located a mile outside the base. Upon entering the home and talking with one of the directors, I immediately became a volunteer spending 10 to 20 hours a week socializing, singing, feeding and playing games with more than 30 residents, one of which was one of 337 survivors from the U.S.S. Arizona when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Soon after my first visit, I decided to donate a dozen or so pieces of my ceramic artwork to the home to decorate the common areas. In the ensuing months of visiting the residents, ranging in age from mid-50s to the early 100s, my face was common to the residents as those who worked there. I quickly became somewhat of a surrogate family member and companion to each of them.

Ten months later, I was called away for a four-month temporary duty assignment to Saudi Arabia. Not wanting to upset the residents, I only told the staff at the home I was leaving and asked them to tell the residents that I'm busy working and will be back soon.

When I departed for the desert, more commonly known as the 'sand box', I wondered if I was making a difference to these people or not, especially as many of them could not express their feelings and emotions very well.

Upon my return to the home following my TDY, I got my answer.

I was making my rounds to say hello to everyone and to my surprise, I found myself being verbally scolded by a 70-something-year-old woman shortly after I entered her room. She said, "Where have you been?! I haven't seen you in a long time. I missed hearing your stories." I didn't know what to think.

I was completely shocked by what had happened. Not so much that I was scolded for not visiting her, but because the woman had never acknowledged my presence with any verbal or non-verbal gestures in the 10 months I had previously spent with her.

What happened next brought a swell of tears to my eyes and made all the hair on my body stand on-end.

The woman proceeded to recite back to me everything I had ever told her about myself and my family and asked all sorts of follow-up questions. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was making a difference to this woman, or for that matter, to most of the residents I visited. But, nevertheless, I never gave up on them, and apparently, they never gave up on me.

While her outburst stunned me, she made me realize that just because you don't see immediate results it doesn't mean you're not making a difference. Sometimes, it takes a lot longer than you would like to cultivate something meaningful and tangible.

Being a good citizen in the community in which you live and work doesn't just apply when you're living in the U.S. For the military and civilian ambassadors overseas representing all Americans, being a good neighbor can make a world of difference. The foreign community receiving the good deed benefits, as well as the military. You help shape the public's trust and support of our troops and build longlasting relationships and friendships.

To learn how to get involved and make a difference on Osan Air Base or in the surrounding Korean communities, contact the Osan Airmen and Family Readiness Center volunteer coordinator at 784-5440.