CAMP ZAMA, Japan (Sept. 22, 2020) – Lt. Col. Joel Gleason gets a little sheepish when he talks about the acorn he carries in his pocket, and he is quick to explain.
“I’ve always got an acorn on me, and the reason is this: A lot of what I do here involves planting something that I’m not going to get to see finished,” said Gleason, the commander of U.S. Army Garrison Okinawa.
Gleason has made a point of volunteering extensively in the communities where he has been stationed, largely with the Boy Scouts of America, and he sees his job as garrison commander as an extension of that spirit of service. He hopes to inspire others to do the same.
“It’s like an oak tree,” Gleason said. “Oak trees are going to outlive you. If you plant an acorn, there’s something that’s going to last longer than you do. I would say that garrison command, scouting, a lot of what I try to do in my life, are the same, where I’m putting something in the ground that is going to last longer than me.”
Gleason is the Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 101 in Okinawa, and as the father of four sons, it’s a role that comes naturally to him. Kipp, 16, is an Eagle Scout who continues to look for community volunteer projects; Colton, 13, is a Life Scout, the rank below Eagle Scout; and Cooper, 12, is a Second Class Scout on the trail to being a First Class Scout. Gleason and his wife Trista also have a 3-year-old son who can join the Cub Scouts in kindergarten.
The family moved to Okinawa in June 2019 from Germany, and between the two locations Gleason put in more than 570 volunteer hours last year. So far in Okinawa this year, he has contributed more than 200 hours, having to curtail some of his activities due to COVID-19.
In addition to volunteering with the Boy Scouts, Gleason also volunteers with his church, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers and other organizations around the Army as needed.
Gleason said there are many reasons he and his family volunteer—and why they encourage others to do the same.
“If you need a hobby, nothing is going to be more fulfilling than something where you know at the end of the day you made the world a little bit better,” Gleason said.
Also, volunteering helps the family settle after every Army move, Gleason said.
“Whenever you volunteer, you have an instant social group that you’re with,” Gleason said. “We move every two years. If we don’t find ways to engage with the community as soon as we arrive, then that’s a pretty lonely life.”
In addition, serving as Scoutmaster also helps Gleason maintain a balance between work and life.
Volunteering makes me a better leader, makes me a better Soldier; it makes me a better dad,” Gleason said. “It ensures that even if I have the busiest of weeks, I’m committed to hanging out with my kids one night a week.”
Gleason said he spends a lot more time with his sons than that, but when life gets hectic, it helps to have that commitment.
In addition, Gleason wants Soldiers to know that if he can find the time to volunteer, they can too. In fact, he knows many extremely busy Soldiers who make volunteering a priority.
“As I’m working my schedule, I figure out where other things need to go, and in some ways if you set up what’s important, the rest of it, you’re busy, but it becomes a little easier,” Gleason said.
Volunteering also helps Gleason and his family make connections within the community.
For example, Gleason said, his wife Trista volunteers with their children’s schools, scouting, and at a Marine spouses’ charity on post, where she has learned a lot about the Army’s sister services and made connections between them.
USAG Okinawa has volunteer opportunities for everyone, Gleason said.
To name a few, the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program is strong and regularly offers opportunities; the USO and American Red Cross are also active in the community; and Okinawa Beach Cleanup gets members of the community out every week doing exactly what the organization’s name says it does, Gleason said.
“They didn’t get silly or clever with the name; that’s what they are,” Gleason said.
All the opportunities are too long to list, Gleason said, but Army Community Service can help people find a place to volunteer that is right for them.
The garrison, mostly through ACS, also makes sure the community recognizes their service through quarterly awards ceremonies, Gleason said. BOSS also recognizes Soldiers for their volunteer work.
Volunteers shouldn’t feel awkward about recording their hours or receiving recognition for their work, Gleason said.
Gleason said at first he didn’t want to record his hours, but an Army Community Service employee convinced him that it is important for the Army to know how many volunteer hours help make the installation successful.
Likewise, Gleason said he proudly wears his Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal on his dress uniform because he wants to inspire others.
“Soldiers would go, ‘Oh hey, if the garrison commander volunteers, maybe I should find the time too,’” Gleason said.
Ultimately, Gleason said he sees volunteerism as exponentially helpful, like an oak tree creating many acorns.
“Volunteering with scouts, I’m developing youth who are also spending their time in service,” Gleason said. “So in many ways, my time volunteering multiplies by teaching them how to be good citizens, good servants in their community.”