There has always been one particular thing that has bothered me since the moment I knew that I would be retiring from the Air Force. I knew that I would end up receiving a VA disability compensation. The reason that this is hard for me to accept is because I still don’t feel “disabled”. I don’t feel like I should receive any sort of compensation for not actively producing a product. Sure, I continue to actively work toward bettering my mental health by taking classes, going to groups, taking medication, and seeing my therapists, but those don’t make me feel like I deserve any money.
One day, I was out at our local forest/historical site and decided to visit the “Raptor Refuge”. It is a small area that houses injured birds of prey that were never able to recover enough to be released back into the wild. I had been to this area about a half dozen times before and didn’t think anything different this time. On this day, there was a docent there teaching people about each bird and giving facts about the different types of raptors in the area.
While I was looking at my favorite of the birds there, Charlotte, a peregrine falcon, the docent came up and started to tell me about her disabilities and her history. Charlotte used to belong to a group of birds that lived atop one of the large buildings in the city. On multiple occasions, she would be found injured, brought to the center to recover from her injuries, and released back near where she was found. On the final time that she was caught and brought in by one of the local volunteers, it became clear that Charlotte had more than just her obvious injuries. As it turned out, Charlotte suffers from some neurological damage and is mostly blind. She couldn’t even actually see me from the 5-foot distance where I stood.
The cool thing about Charlotte, though, is that she still contributes in her own way. She may not be able to live safely in the wild and be a part of our little ecosystem, but by living where she does, she provides awareness and education to the local human population. Her mere presence allows men and women of all ages to have an eyes on learning experience about some of the struggles and issues that local raptors like her live with. From being injured by guns to injured in the urban environment, humans can negatively impact their lives.
Immediately I thought about volunteering at the forest. If I could be a land steward, I could maintain the property for visitors and help raise funds and awareness that way. If I could help with janitorial work around the birds, I could help make the area around this refuge cleaner and, therefor, more attractive to the visitors. The two things that I really thought would be cool were volunteer opportunities that I never would have guessed would have been available to somebody as young and inexperienced in that environment as I was/am. They were the behind the scenes, indirect preparation/care for the birds and actual hands-on care.
I asked the docent if their were any volunteer opportunities available and he pointed me in the right direction.
The Wednesday Crew
After weeks, if not more than a month, of talking about it with my wife we decided that it would be a good opportunity for me to both give back and see some parallels between their situation and my own. The benefits that I would get out of volunteering while I continued treatment would greatly outweigh any additional money that I could bring in from working full-time. With her working, we were in a situation that allowed for me to take time to focus on my recovery.
One day, after leaving the VA, I decided that that would be the day that I would turn in a volunteer application with their program. I checked many of the “interests” boxes, including all of the things listed above and gave it to the lady who was working. It was a week later that received an email from the volunteer coordinator for the Raptor Recovery program. She told me about a group that she takes out every Wednesday morning to the location where the injured birds actually go through their recovery. We would be there doing chores, which would allow the hired personnel more time to be able to focus on the birds. It sounded like something that I would be interested in because it would, like I wanted, be actively contributing to something. It would indirectly help the birds in their recovery. Of course I replied with a “sounds good”, or something along those lines.
The first Wednesday I worked I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t think I would actually work near any of the birds, but that was fine. I piled into the van of volunteers that they affectionately refer to as the “prison bus” and found myself surrounded by people almost twice my age. At first I felt out of place. These people had all full on retired and were spending their free time helping. I was “medically retired” from the Air Force and was still able to do more physically than they, so I felt a little like I didn’t really belong there or wouldn’t “fit in”. I was so wrong. On the drive to the recovery center, I started striking up conversations with different people. Some wanted to know about my experiences in the military. Some just wanted to know about me and my family. Each of them, though, was happy to be there that morning. That thought still stands out.
At one point on the drive, I kept hearing a noise behind me. Already being anxious I looked around. I was in the back seat and only had boxes behind me, so I didn’t know what could be making that noise. Eventually, I brought it up and told the driver, who was the volunteer coordinator, that there was something going on. It was at that point that I learned exactly how closely I would be working with the raptors. She informed me that in the loosely closed box behind me was a Red-Tailed Hawk. It had been recently injured and we were transporting it to go into rehabilitation. Wow! A Red-Tailed Hawk less than a foot behind me! Now that’s cool!
When we got to the recovery and rehab center, the coordinator gave me a quick tour of the land. There were barns and cages everywhere. The land is next to a wooded area, so some of the larger cages butt up right next to the trees. She told me about the different stages of their recovery and the process they go through to make sure that a bird is able to survive in the wild again. Since then I’ve learned so much each time I go out there, but I’ll save that for different posts. Lastly, she introduced me to the lady in charge of all of the raptors, of which she sees up to 200 a year and has done so for about 40 years. Talk about somebody with a wealth of experience and knowledge. She accepted me right away and I started going to work.
“I never thought I’d enjoy scraping up bird poop that much.”
The first day I worked I did two main things. I wiped down plastic cages that were covered in bird poop and scrubbed rugs that were covered in, oh so much more, bird poop. A lot of the work was simplified with borax and a pressure washer, but there was still scrubbing to be done. All of the volunteers were happy and talkative. None of them complained once about what they were doing. They legitimately enjoyed each other’s company and being able to help. That stood out to me. At the end of the day, they all asked what I thought of it and the only thing that came to mind was, “I never thought I’d enjoy scraping up bird poop that much.” I meant it. I genuinely enjoyed being there.
Since that day a couple of months ago, I have taken part in different events and even found out that some of my old squadron mates volunteer there, as well. Those I’ll save for another post. One of those cool events is the attached picture of me holding a Great-Horned Owl.
All in all, I am so glad that my wife talked me into doing the types of things that I’m doing. I have so much motivation and energy after working with those people, and I haven’t once felt like I didn’t belong there.