Never Volunteer

Scott, a teacher colleague, emailed me recently. He wanted to know if I wouldn’t mind being a writing response group facilitator at the upcoming University of Illinois Writing Project’s fall meeting.

Hell no, I thought.

I deleted the email and went on to the next email from a parent or an administrator inquiring about grades, or lesson plans, or whatever else those emails ask about.

Several days later, Scott emails again. “Hey Jarrod—I’m going to read your silence as agreement unless you say otherwise!”

Shit, I thought.

I responded. “Sure, Scott. I can do that.”

I clicked send and chuckled to myself. All of my colleagues have probably noticed that I don’t like to volunteer for anything at school. They probably think I’m lazy or selfish. They probably don’t realize that I am still programmed to behave in certain ways in certain situations.

As a soldier, I learned quickly to never volunteer for anything. When no one volunteered, someone would be voluntold, and that was fine with me.

In 2005, I had the pleasure of working alongside an old National Guard soldier. To my amazement, this guy had served in Vietnam in the early 1970s. He left active duty but stayed in the National Guard for all these years.

One afternoon, we were standing at the edge of a field outside of Kandahar city. It was bare dirt and rocks, with scrap metal, car parts, and garbage strewn everywhere. EOD, the explosive ordnance disposal team, the equivalent of a military bomb squad was on its way. Another unit had been on patrol in the area, and believed that they had possibly located an undetonated land mine in the middle of the field. The inexperienced lieutenant in charge of the patrol said that he couldn’t be sure if it was a landmine or a hubcap partially buried in the mud.

It was my 3rd tour in the War on Terror already, and I was a grouchy and impatient staff sergeant. I was not impressed with cherry lieutenants.

I keyed the mic on my radio. “Base operations, this is Maggot 2. Do we have an ETA on EOD? Over.”

“Maggot 2, this is Base operations. ETA is unavailable at this time. EOD has been diverted to conduct blast analysis and battle damage assessment for IED strike, vicinity Fire Base Lagman. Over.”

Great, I thought. This is going to take hours.

I looked at the old soldier. “This lieutenant is an idiot. How can they not tell the difference between a hubcap and a landmine? I’m just going to walk out there and look. This is ridiculous.”

“Don’t go out there, Sarge,” he said to me. “That’s not your job.”

I stopped and looked at him. “It’s fine,” I said. “Anything is better than waiting hours for EOD to get here.”

“Listen to me,” he said. “You don’t volunteer for shit. I had a cocky young soldier just like you in Vietnam. He was short too, just about to go home, rotate back to the world. His year was up, and he had made it. Just a few days before he was supposed to leave, he volunteered. We were supposed to set up a night ambush in the jungle, but we were short of people. He volunteered to go out on one last patrol, one last ambush, so we wouldn’t be so shorthanded on a night when we expected contact with Charlie. Do you know what happened to him, Sarge?”

I looked at him, waiting for the rest of the story.

“He got wasted. I had to stuff what was left of his 20-year-old body in to a plastic bag that night. He got wasted because he volunteered. You want to survive this war, kid? Then don’t ever volunteer for shit.”

We waited hours for EOD to arrive. They came, swept the area for explosives, and found none. I learned a lesson that day. Just one more wartime experience that has become part of who I am.

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