“I submitted my retirement papers on April 1, 2012, at age 60,” Bonhag said. “That was the easiest part in the entire process. The difficult part was trying to map out my plans for the next roughly 25 years of life.”
And map them out he did. Since retiring in 2012, Bonhag has become a certified, licensed EMT and a member of the Red Cross Disaster Health Services (DHS) team. He also earned an associate’s degree in health information technology from Brookdale Community College in New Jersey and has been a volunteer at the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MCSPCA).
The common thread woven through Bonhag’s life as a retiree has been service to those in need—whether it’s during a post-disaster deployment or socializing puppies at the MCSPCA. In 2018, as a member of the DHS team, he was deployed to California to lend support to victims of the wildfires. One of the fires, the Camp fire, ravaged Paradise, California, claiming 85 lives, displacing nearly 50,000 people, and burning about 11,000 homes to the ground. At one point, it was estimated to be the deadliest, most expensive fire in California history—before this year’s wildfires.
“Deployments are emotional challenges because you’re seeing people who have lost everything, everything,” Bonhag said. “The Camp fire … destroyed the entire town, [19,000] buildings were gone. Think about that.”
For the Camp fire, Bonhag was assigned to work in the family dormitory at a shelter at Chico Fairgrounds in nearby Chico, California. He worked alongside a nurse from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., helping roughly 110 families “living on cots with everything they own … right next to them or underneath the cot.” He said he was blown away by the donations that came in—not just for the families but for animals, too: food, treats, and sweaters for dogs and cats.
“It was just amazing,” he said. “It touched my heart because it crossed what I do with the SPCA with what I do with the Red Cross.”
So far this year, Bonhag has deployed three times: to Mississippi in the wake of tornadoes, to Michigan after a dam collapse caused flooding, and to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when Tropical Storm Isaias prompted evacuations. Though he’s been asked to redeploy to California and Louisiana, Bonhag is taking some time closer to home, acting as what he calls a “utility player” for the Red Cross, working as a fiscal reviewer, an instructor, and a DHS team lead for Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.
He’s also doing “virtual deployments,” during which he can lend support to 50 to 60 people daily. On the ground or on Zoom, helping people and hearing their stories keeps Bonhag going. “People, they get to know you,” he said, “and they get to tell you their stories.”