A Call to Service, A Call to Compassion

By Adam Cole, Director Join the Journey

ARLINGTON, Virginia (May 30, 2017) Marching companies with Marine Barracks Washington D.C. execute pass in review during a Tuesday Sunset Parade at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

The impact and importance of our nation’s military cannot be underestimated. From the Revolutionary War to World War I & II to the conflicts in the Middle East, brave men and women have stood up to answer the call.

A quick fact:  There were 20.4 million U.S. veterans in 2016 reported by the Department of Veteran affairs, which is an astounding figure but still only a small fraction—10 percent—of the U.S. adult population. Those who choose to lay their lives on the line deserve a debt of gratitude—we indeed salute you.

I decided to raise my right hand to swear an oath of commitment in 2004 at what felt like a lonely office building in Denver, Colorado. There was no fanfare, just solemn words: Do you take this obligation freely?…I do.

There is a common thread that runs through all of us. A sense of calling. A sense of dutifully going to where our leaders call us. We are bound by what is called the chain-of-command, which extends all the way up to the President of the United States. And so when we receive orders to go, there may be grumbling but there is never hesitation.

Admittingly, I have never served in combat like many of my Army and Marine brethren have. Never been shot at or had to kick down doors. Never been in a Pashtun village meeting with elders and being ever-watchful for children toting AK-47s.

My experience in service has been a mix of goodwill diplomacy and providing an ever-ready floating platform capable of exacting substantial military force or rendering aid. It means long days on the ocean, cut off from the world, save for a small bit of satellite communications.

Service to country in our nation’s military can have so many possibilities because our world is an ever-evolving and dangerous place—and the needs are great. But that common thread runs deep—to obediently take on any mission asked.

At 3 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2010 was one such moment for me. I heard a frantic knock on my door. My phone was on silent and saw that I had several missed calls. When I opened the door, my friend explained the situation. We were being told to report to the ship [USS Normandy] and get ready to set sail to respond to the earthquake in Haiti that had decimated the capital of Port-au-Prince.

And so our cruise of 300 left about mid-afternoon that day. We sailed to Mayport to pick up our helicopter detachment and were off the coast of Haiti a couple days after as part of a large military effort called Operation Unified Assistance. That helicopter crew embarked on our ship did most of the heavy lifting (literally) in those first days, carrying the wounded to medical facilities and moving relief supplies to places where roads had been severely damaged.

ILE DE LA GONAVE, Haiti, Haiti (Feb. 4, 2010) Command Master Chief Jack Callison, assigned to the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60), gives candy to a Haitian boy during an assessment and assistance visit, as part of a series of humanitarian aid deliveries on the island of La Gonave, Haiti. Normandy is conducting humanitarian and disaster relief operations as part of Operation Unified Response after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake caused severe damage in and around Port-au-Prince, Haiti Jan. 12. (U.S. Navy photo)

About a week in, our ship was given permission to deliver boxes of food we had picked up in Mayport to outlying villages on the southern claw and on the island of Gonave, which was now isolated since the entire port of Port-au-Prince had been destroyed. I ended up going out on a handful of these delivery missions where we gave out food and ship-produced water, plus some candy for the kids there. Through the eyes of the villagers I met, I could sense the plight of Haiti as a nation, where so many were living in extreme poverty – certainly not by choice, but just the way life was. I felt so broken for them knowing that their lives would continue entrenched in hardship while mine would move on, soon reunited with my wife and the comforts of American life.

Military service teaches one about honor, courage, and commitment – doing the right thing all the time. You are taught to be ready at all times, to acknowledge that you may be called to challenge an adversary at any moment. Still, this does not mean we are heartless or told to leave compassion at the door. In fact, a love-for-neighbor ideal is enhanced because you realize that only through partnerships and bonds can you build the alliances that sustain peace.

After I returned home from our month-plus mission in Haiti, I began to reflect and deeply consider: “What is being done for Haitians like the ones I had come across?” I scanned the news near-daily and assessed that progress was slow and relief organizations were overwhelmed due to the massive need. Part of me wanted to just open up my wallet to those already on the ground. But I had a such a burning passion to help out, to build unit cohesion around a vision for long-term change in a broken nation.

Join the Journey, a compassion-focused organization I started a few months prior to the tragedy in Haiti, took shape out of that overwhelming desire to be the change. I went back to Haiti in September 2010—9 months after the earthquake and made a commitment to rebuilding the lives of inhabitants of a small tent camp called Capvva.

Then college student Kester McCullough (and eventual board member) and our Haitian partner James Dorzil walk with kids through Capvva during a Compassion Trip in 2011. 

Poverty is deep and is not solved through brute force. We’ve recognized over time that ‘hand up,’ not hand-out strategies can change lives. The initial desire to help the broken remains my motivation—and many of the veterans and fellow Christians who have come alongside me in this endeavor.

Today, Nov. 11, Veterans Day, is a day we recognize our veterans –and equally must recognize those who serve and have served are humans too. We bleed in the heart for the people we intersect with and then when we take off the uniform must reconcile with how their lives are continuing on. To those who continue to struggle in the trenches of poverty, we hear you, we see you too.

Adam Cole is the founder and Executive Director/Board Chairman of Join the Journey, serving without pay in an off-duty capacity while he continues military service. He can be reached at adam@jtjourney.org.