I got to do some amazing and beautiful things in my four years of AmeriCorps. I had the opportunity to serve my community, to respond to disasters when they happened. I got to remove debris from peoples yards, helping to begin the process of rebuilding communities ripped apart by the fury of nature. I got to serve alongside survivors and listen to their stories. I got to lead a team of young adults as they discovered how to change lives through service. I was able to travel across the country serving, digging fireline, building trails, removing hazard trees, and felling invasive species.
I got the opportunity to do all of this, and so much more. And in those four years of service, I only have a single regret.
It wasn’t something that I did, but rather something I didn’t do.
Each year, the St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) would make two trips up to Montana to serve alongside the USFS in and around the Beaverhead-Deerhead National Forest. It was a long three day drive as we made the journey out packed into several trucks loaded down with gear. It was on one of these long days driving across the stretch of interstate that I recently looked back upon and felt ashamed of something I didn’t do.
At the beginning of my second year with the St Louis ERT, which happened to be my fourth and last year serving with AmeriCorps, I found myself in one of the pick up trucks with four other teammates. One of them I knew after we served together the previous year and the other three were teammates that I had just met.
We were riding in Blue Hulk (yes, our trucks were named, along with our chainsaws and various other equipment) near the back of the procession of vehicles as we made our way through one of the Dakotas (I believe we were in South Dakota at the time) when we happened to pass a serious wreck. By the looks of it, a driver had crossed the median and oncoming lanes, went up the embankment underneath an overpass and wedged themselves underneath the bridge. Several other vehicles that were not traveling with our group had already pulled off to assist, but first responders had not arrived on the scene.
And there I was driving past it.
Even after two of my teammates asked if we should pull over, I didn’t stop.
And to this day, I regret that decision.
One of those teammates was an EMT. Two others were certified first responders. We had all taken first aid classes. We could have helped. But I didn’t. I kept on driving.
Several minutes later, we saw the ambulance speeding past in the opposite direction towards the wreckage. And that was the moment that I began to regret my decision.
After my time responding to the Joplin tornado three years earlier, I struggled with the thought that there was so much more I could have done. Due to policy, my team was pulled off that disaster response 13 days after we arrived. I struggled with knowing that people still needed our help. There was still something more that we could have done there. I was angry because instead of serving where the immediate need was, we found ourselves heading down to Houston, TX to help out at a youth camp.
At the time, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know how to express the frustration that consumed me. Yet, after several meetings with campus staff and teammates, I found myself at peace with it. While I was there, we had done everything we could to help. I had done my best, and there was nothing to be personally ashamed of.
And as I watched the ambulance fade into the mirror, and I saw the disappointment on the faces of my teammates, I knew that I could have done more. We could have done more. Made a difference.
It’s been over two years since those events on the interstate took place. And that moment stands out. Out of the four years that I served in AmeriCorps, that decision is the only one that I look back on and regret. Out of all my travels and adventures that make up my journey, that decision is still the only one I regret, because I didn’t do what my heart knew was the right thing to do.
Looking back on that moment seems like forever ago. How much has changed since then?
Why are you sharing these words? I hear you asking.
I’m sharing them because I have never put them into words. In the years of serving and writing, I never shared them, and I knew I had to. I have to live with that decision and it is a constant reminder that I never want to feel that way ever again.
I now work in realm of the first responder. I answer 911 phone calls every night that I work. I dispatch law enforcement, emergency medical, and fire personnel to calls day in and day out. And I never want to feel that shame of regret ever again. So I do the best that I can. I continue to serve to the best of my abilities.
And when I think about giving up, taking that easy path, I see that ambulance in the rear view window again. I take a breath. And I give it my all.