When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and nearly 1 million Haitians were rendered homeless in a matter of moments. Powerful images of the aftermath, the tent cities, the overflowing medical clinics and the food lines were broadcast across the world.
Fortunately relief efforts were fast and numerous. But two former Marine Corps sergeants, Jake Wood and William McNulty, felt particularly compelled to help. Wood and McNulty canvassed relief organizations to find a way to get to Haiti, but the aid groups repeatedly suggested that the pair simply make a donation and leave the onsite assistance to people who “know what they are doing.”
Wood and McNulty knew they could do better than that, and they were determined. Together with six other veterans and first responders, Wood and McNulty gathered funds and medical supplies from friends and family and flew to the Dominican Republic. From there they rented a truck, loaded their gear and headed west to Haiti.
Over the next several weeks, the small team ended up helping hundreds of patients. And while they were there, Wood and McNulty realized that the chaotic situation in Haiti was not much different from the situations they faced during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The skills they developed as Marines were in fact directly applicable to disaster response situations. The team members also realized that relief work gave them a new sense of purpose and a mission as powerful as the one they’d had when they were in service. That prompted an idea: bring veterans together to form a unique international emergency response organization that could help people around the world, and at the same time give veterans a sense of purpose and support. Thus, Team Rubicon was born.
The mission of Team Rubicon is to “unite the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams.” In doing so, the organization seeks to provide veterans with three things they lose after leaving the military: a purpose gained through disaster relief; community built by serving with others; and self-worth from recognizing the impact one individual can make.
Not long after the founders returned from Haiti and formalized Team Rubicon, they were off to assist with numerous other disasters around the world, including an earthquake in Chile and flooding in Pakistan. But in 2011, the organization faced a huge setback when one of the original eight members lost his battle with post-traumatic stress and took his own life. It turned out to be a shifting point for Team Rubicon. Its leaders realized that they needed to do more to help veterans at home, and as an international organization, they were limited in the numbers they could engage.
[Team Rubicon is a grass-roots organization that is 100 percent donor funded. It has grown to include more than 17,000 members since its inception in 2010. Photo courtesy of Kirk Jackson/Team Rubicon]
“As a domestically focused organization, we knew we could engage veterans in the thousands rather than in the hundreds,” said David Burke, director of Field Operations for Team Rubicon.
So in 2011 the organization changed direction and focused its effort exclusively on domestic disaster response. Today, the team has more than 17,000 members, with the goal of reaching 75,000.
“The emergency response we do here in the U.S. is not usually to the scale of Haiti or Chile, but the need is just as clear,” Burke said. “While you may not be doing life safety in most cases, you are still having a massive impact on communities in need.”
Word of mouth has been the primary method of recruitment for Team Rubicon thus far. Once people sign up, they immediately get access to online training that introduces them to the organization and informs them what to expect. They are also encouraged to enroll in basic FEMA training. Because recruits are either veterans or first responders, most already have key skills and training in areas like incident response and chain of command.
When a disaster strikes, team members are deployed to help with a wide variety of support tasks as well as community relations, incident command and tech support. For example, Team Rubicon members responding to recent floods in Michigan helped flood victims sort through possessions, discard rubbish and sanitize damaged property, at no cost to the homeowners.
“Team Rubicon is 100 percent donor funded,” Burke said. “We raise money through a variety of avenues, including grass-roots fundraising, corporate sponsorships and private sources. So far, we have not needed any state or local funding at all.”
Not only do Team Rubicon services benefit the victims of a disaster, they are valuable to the veterans who participate as well.
“Some of the things that veterans miss when they leave the military are working as a member of a team, a sense of mission and purpose, and interacting with other veterans,” said Mike Hiltz, a U.S. Army veteran who recently participated in Operation: Flood Wrangler, the previously mentioned flood recovery operation in Dearborn, Mich., where approximately 2,500 homes suffered flood damage.
Hiltz said that what made the deployment (which was his first) special was seeing the surprise, relief and tears when an elderly homeowner, who had lost her husband two months prior, discovered that Team Rubicon was there to help her.
“I’m always amazed, but never shocked, when a group of veterans and like-minded civilians get together to complete a task and it ‘just happens,’” he said. “There isn’t a lot of standing around, trying to figure out who’s going to lead, debating the best way to accomplish the job, etc. Someone always steps up, and everyone else jumps in to lend a hand where needed.”
Alan Jones is a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran. Though he is active in his church and has done some mission work, he “somehow felt that was not enough.”
Jones recently found out about Team Rubicon and signed up. After an EF-5 tornado hit Faulkner County, Ark., on April 28, 2014, Team Rubicon launched Operation: Rising Eagle to provide home repair and debris removal to residents affected by the disaster. Jones was part of that team.
“Despite the fatigue, I haven’t felt this good and at the same time emotionally overwhelmed in years,” he said. “The commitment from all the veterans, from the old-timers who are longtime members with many deployments, down to those of us on our first, is huge.”
Jones said those deployed on Operation: Rising Eagle ran the gamut, from an “old guy like me who can hardly bend down to tie my shoes,” to highly skilled youngsters, and everything in between.
Navy Veteran Karen Bump also participated in the Faulkner County operation. Since retiring from the Navy in 2007, Bump worked at two companies, started her own business, took up riding a Harley, went to Sturgis, S.D., and pursued other endeavors to “get reacquainted with that feeling of accomplishment.”
Then Bump found Team Rubicon.
“Once I arrived on station around fellow vets and began helping people, I realized what I’d been missing and longing for — the love, camaraderie and support from people who understand my work ethic and share the same compassion for helping those who cannot help themselves,” Bump said. “Team Rubicon has been a medication I sorely needed, and it is healing a lot of my wounds, allowing me to be part of something so much bigger than myself. Team Rubicon also allows me to reunite and meet fellow vets from all eras of the wars, share experiences and make new friends that I might need to lean on one day.”
Burke said the next steps for Team Rubicon are to continue to grow the organization, to make a bigger impact in disaster response and in veteran reintegration, and to respond to more communities — specifically those that may not receive the attention that cities affected by huge events like Hurricane Sandy get.
“We want to focus not only on the big events, but also on the smaller communities hit by maybe a smaller storm that really don’t get any attention or support from state, federal or nonprofit entities,” Burke said. “It’s a challenge to scale, it’s a challenge to keep up with because there are so many immediate needs and they may only take a week or three days to respond to, but the needs are the same no matter how big or how small.”
Fortunately, because military training is such a great complement to disaster response skills, Team Rubicon seems to handle any size or type of disaster with speed, skill and ease.
“My Army training goes hand-in-hand with the things we do in Team Rubicon,” said Pam Gieselman, Team Rubicon’s region V communications manager and an Army National Guard veteran. As a communications manager, Gieselman oversees the team’s communications activities and promotion in six states in addition to her full-time job with the Department of Defense. “Team Rubicon has a command structure I’m comfortable with, and in the military you are trained to function in chaos. There is no bigger chaos than a disaster area. That is where we thrive.”
Gieselman first connected with Team Rubicon when she saw a story about the organization in People magazine.
“I signed up and they reached out and asked me to help during Hurricane Sandy — it was quite the whirlwind,” she said. “I knew next to nothing about the organization, and I had never met anyone in person. My mom was kind of freaking out and telling me, ‘You can’t get in a van with random strangers and drive to New York!’”
But Gieselman went and spent 10 days cleaning out flooded homes alongside fellow veterans. Since then, she’s been involved with flood recovery projects in Illinois and Michigan and tornado cleanup in Washington, Ill.
“Team Rubicon is a huge family,” Gieselman said. “If you’re volunteering with Team Rubicon, I know you are a person I can trust because people don’t commit their free time to things like this unless they are a really great person. I think that makes a huge difference for people struggling after coming back from a tour of duty. We are there for each other, no matter what.”