Published in the March 1 – 14, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Connor Quinn
I first met Richard Gatewood on the flight line of Forward Operating Base Bostick in the Kunar province of Afghanistan. Silhouetted in the night sky, he stood as this lanky figure with a giant mustache. He spoke with a soft Southern accent. In his arms he carried a drone he was going to drop off on the way out of the country. We were both heading home on mid-tour leave.
It didn’t matter who, when, where or what, if something needed to be done, or someone needed a hand, Gatewood was there to help. So when I learned that he had started a nonprofit organization aimed at giving combat wounded veterans a new-found purpose after the military, it made sense. He would be the one to do something like that.
Gatewood is a combat-wounded U.S. Army veteran. He took shrapnel in his left arm and chest a couple months after I met him. After receiving his “enemy marksmanship badge” — you might of heard it called a Purple Heart — he struggled with finding a purpose. Due to his injuries he could no longer do his job in the Infantry. The army pretty much told him he was done. But Gatewood wasn’t done yet. In fact, that became the slogan for his nonprofit organization Team Drive: “I’m not done yet.”
As someone who also defined themselves by their military service, I’ve struggled and am continuing to struggle with finding my purpose and who I am exactly outside of the uniform. In addition to combat-wounded veterans, Gatewood also helps veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder by refocusing that negative energy and giving veterans a purpose bigger than themselves. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s the sort of treatment that I relish. So when he asked if I wanted to go to Haiti to do a preventative medicine assessment on an orphanage that Team Drive sponsors, how could I say no?
Since Gatewood can’t help but help those in need if he’s capable, when he learned an orphanage in Haiti he had visited on a church mission was going to close due to lack of funding, he did what he always does — he stepped up and helped.
Team Drive isn’t a big operation. The budget for funding the orphanage isn’t the biggest, and when kids got sick he decided to send a team to see what the conditions were and how we could improve them. He scraped together a team, which included his wife Sherry a former U.S. Army officer and physician’s assistant, along with two former Army Combat Medics, myself and Jacob Schultz.
Schultz has done several trips to Haiti so was appointed team leader. He’s also studying to become a physician’s assistant like me — and like me, we had served in the same area in Afghanistan. Sherry took the lead conducting medical exams and building a medical history.
Armed with Gatewood’s credit card, they purchased tickets from Nashville to Port-au-Prince. When we landed we were met by our guide/interpreter, a nice guy named Moise. He picked us up in a beat-up mid-’90s Toyota 4-Runner and drove us to the compound where we would be staying. From the moment you enter the country, you see everywhere the evidence of the devastating earthquake that brought Haiti to the world stage. Cracks and damage to the infrastructure at the airport. The road system could best be described as a four-wheel-drive park. On every street pervades the sights and smells of a poverty that few know of in the United States. In the air, you constantly smell the stench of burning trash. Litter is strewn all over. People wash laundry in springs that pour into the middle of the roads.
The compound was gated and walled. On top of those walls was a combination of concertina wire and broken glass to ward off intruders. Electricity would be intermittent throughout our stay, except at night, when our hosts would run the generators to run the fans to keep the mosquitoes off us. The next morning after a nice cup of Haitian coffee we made our way to the orphanage. After half an hour of driving through traffic, we finally made it to a pink-painted and spiked-walled compound.
The moment we got inside, we were immediately swarmed by children. This was a different experience then my time in Afghanistan. At one place I carried an aid bag and a sock monkey, the other an aid bag and a gun. After about 15 minutes of introductions, I was able to sneak off and start my job. I was tasked with assessing how hygienic the place was and how we could make improvements. While I was taking pictures and notes, Sherry and Jake set about conducting physicals on all the children and, as a courtesy, all the adults that helped keep the place open. For most of the people that we did these assessments on, it was one of the few times in their lives they received this attention. My sock monkey was a major hit with the kids and provided a good distraction while Sherry listened to heart and lung sounds.
Although the house had plumbing, there was no running water. It had a cistern for holding water but that was bone dry. The toilet they all used was an elevated hole in the ground with a toilet lid over it and a curtain for privacy located in a building just outside the main house. The kitchen was located on the opposite end of the latrine area. They either cooked there or had food brought in from an outside service agency. Water was brought in five-gallon containers and then filtered through a donated HydrAid filter. I found broken glass on the property when I was walking around. It made it all the worse because half the kids didn’t have shoes.
As far as the health screenings were going, most of the kids were in very good health. There were a few cases of possible asthma and a case of unusually high blood pressure in one of the boys. We tried gathering as much information about them as possible, mostly in the vaccination area. However, the only thing we had to go off of was what our guide could tell us. Meaning there was no proof, and no verifiable documentation of what vaccines the kids have received. So the biggest task of all was collecting a medical history on all these kids to be used for future use.
In between our work we took time out to play. For Jake and me that meant we became human jungle gyms. And we continuously got our butts handed to us every time we attempted to play soccer with them — keep in mind some of the kids were barefoot. Sherry was lucky enough not to get the rough-house treatment, and instead would find herself getting her hair braided in cornrows. They also saw I had enough hair to do the same thing, so I also got cornrows. So for the rest of the trip I looked like Justin Timberlake from his boy band days. OK, I’d like to think I looked like that. In reality I probably looked more like a white Rastafarian drug dealer.
As our work concluded, I wanted to leave something behind for the kids to remember us by. Throughout the trip the kids had been playing with my sock monkey with the U.C. Davis logo on it that my sister had given me for my birthday. She and I have had a holiday tradition that my father started for us while I was deployed to Afghanistan. While I was deployed he got her a giant sock monkey for her and said it was from me. She absolutely loved it, so every Christmas I helped her sock monkey family grow. Before I left for Spain this year she gave me the one I mentioned. I carried it with me throughout my travels through Europe, even to Pamplona where I did some bull running. I told those kids the story about the tradition with my sister and decided to leave the sock monkey with them, so I could come back and visit them both in the future.
Then it was time to come home and get back to reality. Within an hour of returning, I found out my grandfather had passed away. So the next couple weeks after Haiti were spent taking care of family affairs. I didn’t want to give up on the tradition that my sister and I had going and having re-gifted the one she gave me I wanted to do something special. So I took to the Internet and Googled the words Haiti and sock monkey. That’s how I found Operation Sock Monkey, an organization that raises money for humanitarian efforts in Haiti by selling sock monkeys. It blows my mind that the stars could align to something that perfect. After the blow of losing our family patriarch, we both needed a positive in our lives to come our way.
We can’t change the entire country of Haiti, but we can change a few lives. We hope to go back in February, with a few items from Operation Sock Monkey to give the kids. You can donate to Team Drive at www.tmdrive.org. You can donate to Operation Sock Monkey at www.operationsockmonkey.com.
Connor Quinn is a former U.S. Army soldier and Morgan Hill resident attending San Jose State University.
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