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A Humbling Experience: Learning the Real Meaning Of Giving

Paul Cockerham

It’s 2007 and I hear about a project for a returning injured Iraq war Veteran. His name was Dale Beatty and he’d lost both legs in an IED explosion in November 2004. A friend, Todd, called me and asked if I’d heard about a plan, spearheaded by the Iredell County Homebuilders Association, to build a handicap accessible home for Dale. I said I hadn’t. Todd is a painting contractor and he asked if I would be interested is helping on this project. I said, yes.

Todd indicated I needed to call the homebuilders association and sign up. When I called the association and said I’d like to sign up for this project I was asked what I did for a living. Strange question I thought – why would that matter? After all, I was calling to get my name on a volunteer list to help my buddy paint (I hate painting by the way) or so I thought.

I answered that I owned a small landscaping business and the lady on the other end said, “Okay, no one has signed up for that yet, would you like to volunteer to do that part?” Ummmm, “yes” I said, still thinking I was calling to sign up to help paint. All good. I’m happy to help this returning warrior any way I can.

The next step for me was to visit the jobsite and meet the folks who put this together, learn more about the project, and get a timeline. Once there, I see a swarm of activity with volunteers everywhere. I meet a few people, learn a little more, and then I meet Dale and his battle buddy, John. I then learned that John was driving the HMMWV (Humm-v) and Dale was in the passenger seat when they encountered the IED.

John, in the civilian world, was a general contractor and built custom homes and was there working to make sure his battle buddy’s new home would meet his particular needs as a double amputee and those of his wife and kids. John was there all the time keeping his finger on the pulse of the project, and Dale was always there wobbling around on his new prosthetic legs doing everything he could do to assist with his new house. It was humbling to experience – friendship, service, tragedy, recovery, healing, mission. I don’t know how many total volunteers assisted with Dale’s house, but there were many!

A prominent subset of these volunteers seemed to be Vietnam Veterans. This was evidenced by hats, pins, t-shirts, and in conversation. Everyone that was there was there to help, but there was another layer with the Vietnam Veterans. They were there to make sure Dale was welcomed home properly. Their experience returning home was very different to the modern service members return. They were spat upon, called baby killers, and any number of other derogatory names.

Their service wasn’t appreciated, their sacrifices were dismissed, and they were never welcomed home as they should have been by a grateful nation. These men and women served, fought, bled, and died just like service members from all previous wars and just like those of all subsequent wars, yet they were treated horribly upon return unlike all other generations of warfighters.

They would see to it that Dale (and John and all like them) would not, under their watch, have a negative homecoming experience. Again, this was humbling. The project was moving along at this point, and I was starting to feel something inside that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something that was unfamiliar to me.

Day after day, evening after evening I would be there working on my very small part of this project, meeting more people, hearing more stories – some stories of time in service from the Veterans who were present, and some stories of a connection to Dale, his family, John, or others, and how and why they were there working so hard to make sure Dale and his family had a safe and accessible home in which to live. Humbling conversations and the unfamiliar feeling stirring again.

What was it? I had no idea. I was there helping just like everyone else, and I was happy to be there just like they seemed to be. The project is progressing. More people are coming to assist, more donations are coming in, businesses are donating their products – for my part, a local golf course donated all the grass seed, fertilizer, and lime needed to sow the yard, two local nurseries donated all the plant material, a local tree farm provided trees for a significantly reduced price, a local mulch yard donated all the amended soil needed for landscape beds, and a local store donated all the straw needed for the yard as well.

Lumber was donated, flooring, drywall, appliances, fixtures, and many other items were being donated and then there were the professional trades people donating skilled labor. Standing back and just trying to process the level of effort being put into this project for this deserving Soldier was incredible. I’d never been a part of anything like this. Sure, I had helped people do things before; helping friends move, helping cut wood for winter heat, helping someone fix a car, giving a ride to someone in need, things that everyone does just to help. This was different.

Fast forward a couple weeks or so and I was back on the project, meeting more people volunteering their time and effort and having more conversation. Then came the ahh-haa moment. I don’t remember if it was a particular conversation or just enough of them came together to get to the ah-ha moment, but I suddenly realized that everyone there was giving – giving from their hearts. It wasn’t just a charitable action, it was giving.

I don’t feel like I knew what real giving was until then. Like I said earlier, I was always willing to help people out when, where, and how I could, but that always seemed just that – helping. I had never had that internal tug that I remember anyway, but I had it here. Hearing why people were here and seeing tears and watching people really give back because it was something coming from the heart was THE humbling smack in the face.

Did I have this? Was I as good as them? I was there doing my part, but they were better. I wanted to give and not just do. It just seemed like I wasn’t there as a person. It turns out I was closer than I thought, but with an unfamiliar feeling inside of me I just didn’t know it. Stay tuned for part two where more humbling and learning experiences bring me to Purple Heart Homes and working with Dale and John to do good.

Paul Cockerham – Chief Development Officer

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