MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO - “No electricity and no hot water, you have to take cold showers every night,” said Capt. Neil Bucken, supply officer for 12th Marine Corps District and a Staten Island, N.Y., native.
Sounds like a typical deployment story, but Bucken is not talking about a deployment, rather a volunteer trip with All Hands Volunteers Organization to the Philippines for 12 days to help with the relief efforts after the earthquake and Super Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013.
“I was raised with a service mindset, to serve others and do good work,” said Bucken. “I don’t think consciously I have to go do volunteer work, I think it’s just inherit in me, because I was raised to do good things and want to help people.”
Bucken had a life full of volunteering, his high school even gave seniors Fridays off to volunteer. Last year he volunteered to clean up after the natural disaster of Hurricane Sandy.
After finding an organization to volunteer with, Bucken brought his idea to the command for their approval to leave work for two weeks to volunteer in the Philippines.
“Last year I took my personal leave, which was no big deal, but this year the command offered to send me Permissive Temporary Assigned Duty (PTAD), which I was really impressed with and really appreciated it.”
Bucken not only received support from the command, but his staff as well.
“I trusted my staff, I’m very appreciative of my Marines and civilian Marines for taking up the burden of work when I left, and I trusted them enough so when I left we wouldn’t drop the ball with anything,” said Bucken.
Bucken had no clue what to expect upon arrival to the Philippines, he just knew it was his duty to help. What he realized was things were worse than he expected.
“The entire island looked like a big giant stomped on it,” said Bucken. “Everybody needed some sort of help.”
The high winds ripped the roof off homes leaving families to live in collapsing houses or under trees for shelter. One of the duties Bucken performed was to help make unsafe buildings tolerable by cutting fallen trees off structures or cleaning rubbish out of buildings.
The memory that stuck with him the most was learning a maternity ward was outside of the hospital under tents just feet away from where they stored body bags of victims.
“The conditions were filthy. There were bloodstains on some equipment and dirt everywhere. I couldn’t believe this was where women were giving birth,” said Bucken.
Bucken and a team of about 20 volunteers cleaned out a basement full of sewage and mold to create a new maternity ward for the hospital.
“We created a clean sanitary maternity ward that they could use, I was very proud to do it,” said Bucken. “We cleaned it to such a point that if someone asked me to, I might have even eaten off of it.”
The Filipino people were appreciative of the efforts from the volunteers. After working all day, families would invite the volunteers into their homes and offer them the only thing they had, Coca-Cola and bread.
“I’m not a multimillionaire, but compared to what the people have there, I’m definitely living like a king,” said Bucken.
Although most lost everything they had, one of the uplifting things was they were still smiling, explained Bucken. He knew there was hope for the future there because it could be seen in the children’s eyes.
“There was a Filipino woman who told me, ‘The Filipino people are like a piece of bamboo, when the wind comes and the heavy rain comes, the bamboo gets knocked down, but when the wind leaves and the rain stops, the bamboo goes straight back up,'” said Bucken. “These people get knocked down a lot, and they just get right back up, they have no option.”
Bucken doesn’t volunteer all the time because there is still a mission to be completed at 12th Marine Corps District, but he encourages everyone to get out there at least once a year.
“My only regret, besides not having a bigger tent, was I wished I had another week. It was an amazing and interesting experience,” said Bucken. “I think you learn a little bit about yourself, because after this trip I am much more appreciative of what I have here.”