DALLAS, April 7, 2014 — When a powerful earthquake shook Haiti in 2010, two Marine veterans knew they must act. Jake Wood and William McNulty realized they were uniquely qualified to render assistance in a country that looked much like the war zones from which they had recently returned. A fledgling group of eight men calling themselves Team Rubicon, indicating their steadfast commitment to the mission, arrived in Haiti only five days after the earthquake.
Their goal was to be rapid, flexible, first responders during the gap between initial disaster and the traditional disaster relief agencies establishing operations. When they left Haiti two weeks later as traditional groups ramped up, a total of 60 volunteers had provided critical care to countless suffering Haitians, and a new kind of disaster relief group was born.
The concept behind Team Rubicon is as simple as it is innovative: military veterans can use the skills and training developed for and in combat to provide immediate humanitarian aid in disaster areas where conditions are strikingly similar to the battlefield: unstable populations, limited resources, and horrific sights, sounds and smells.
Since that beginning four years ago, TR has experienced explosive growth. They now have 15,000 volunteers divided into 10 regions across the country. They have deployed to Chile, Pakistan, and the Philippines in addition to other disasters worldwide and throughout the United States. They are currently on their fifty-fourth deployment, Operation Steelhead in Washington State.
However, Team Rubicon was not only inspired by tragic events, it was also shaped by tragedy from within their own ranks. On March 31, 2011, a little more than a year after Haiti, Clay Hunt, a founding member of TR and the best friend of Jake Wood, took his own life. After his death, they realized TR had a dual mission, not only to provide disaster relief, but also to help veterans reintegrate and even heal, as it harnessed their desire to serve and offered a community and camaraderie like many had found in the military.
Hunt was one of the first members of TR and a leader during the formative stage of the organization. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a blog post written less than three months before his death, he wrote about how TR had given him a renewed sense of purpose. “I cannot tell you how good it feels to be able to go into a ruble strewn city in a third world country, and to be able to do good without having to worry whether or not everybody around is about to start shooting at you,” he wrote.
He also issued a powerful call to serve in that post, one that has resonated with thousands of volunteers— the vast majority of whom never met Hunt. “The fact is, the world truly needs people like us,” he challenged. “People who have a desire to serve, the willingness to put one’s self in harm’s way, and who are content with being paid very little or not at all. I’m not talking about myself or Jake right now — I’m talking about nearly every member of the US military that I have ever met. If I had one thing to say to my fellow veterans, it would be this: Continue to serve, even though we have taken off our uniforms.”
This year, TR implemented the Clay Hunt Fellows Program to meet the leadership needs of the rapidly growing organization and to foster the spirit of service that Hunt embodied. Director of Program Operations Matt Runyon said, “The intent behind the program is to create a tangible leadership pipeline that will allow us to fill our leadership ranks as we continue to grow over the next five, ten, however many years.” The program is designed so that the fellows will have earned an emergency managers certification, as well as have completed a capstone project to benefit TR. But Runyon says the commitment to serve is the most important characteristic of the fellows. “We’re finding people that are not only looking at it as a program to put on their resume, but they’re searching for impact, which is so much what Clay was trying to do.”
Dee Clancy is one of those people who has been inspired by Hunt although she never met him. Clancy is one of the seven member of the first class of fellows. Now a regional manager with TR in Tennessee, the 41 year old writer and home school mom served for ten years in the Navy before leaving in 2000. She had volunteered at many organizations before finding Team Rubicon through a Facebook ad in February of 2012. “From my very first service project, I knew that TR was where I was supposed to be,” she said. Clancy hadn’t realized how much she missed being around others with military experience, and was especially pleased that her military service was appreciated, and not just her husband’s, who also spent four years in the Navy. With TR, “It felt like I was giving back to so many different groups, but getting much more for myself in the process.”
Each fellow is working on a capstone project aimed at benefiting TR. Runyon says the details for the project were left intentionally vague so that the fellows could pursue something they were passionate about, rather than just completing an assigned project. While the main thrust of CHFP is to train emergency managers, Clancy’s project focuses on expanding the fellows program itself. She is working to offer different tracks for future fellows such as non-profit creation and management for those who may not want to make emergency management a career. In talking about the second track she wants to develop — a mental health track with a focus on peer to peer counseling — the passion of which Runyon spoke is evident.
Clancy said that even though she joined the organization a year after his death, Hunt’s influence was still a strong part of the organization.
Even more, his story inspired her to examine the issue of veteran suicides. She was shocked to discover that as many as twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide. “I had no idea that so many of our veterans were taking their lives every day. And if I, as a 10 year veteran, didn’t know, how could I expect other people to know?” she said. “That’s what I hope to accomplish as a Clay Hunt Fellow. I hope to leverage the skills that I’m learning in disaster response to be able to reach even more veterans that are on the edge, like Clay was.”
“People still talk about how Clay was such a great peer counselor, even though he probably never thought of himself that way,” said Clancy. She notes that veterans who aren’t always comfortable talking to mental health professionals are often willing to open up to their peers. “While Team Rubicon won’t ever be a mental health provider for our volunteers, having some of our members trained to recognize warning signs and get volunteers to the right resources in a time of crisis is very important.”
Both Runyon and Clancy know that the model of TR has saved lives, a bittersweet fact when they consider what the organization Team Rubicon has become might have done for Hunt. “I hear from our volunteers after each deployment, and every single time at least one person tells me that TR saved them.” Clancy said. “Clay’s death was a call to action that many of us heard, and it’s my mission to reach as many veterans as possible through disaster response in the hope of preventing another loss like Clay.”
Characteristic of the flexibility of the organization, the fellows program has already made changes for the upcoming class of fellows. Based on feedback from the pioneering cohort, more challenging courses are being considered for future fellows, and applications are currently being accepted through May 1 for the second fellows class to begin this July to align with the academic year, overlapping with the first group. The program is open to all veterans.
“As exciting as everything that we’re doing here, I always think if this happened over the past three years, I can’t imagine what this program is going to be in the next five.” Runyon said. “I can’t wait to see where our current and future cohorts come into play.”
Whatever the future holds for this rapidly growing organization, it is certain that Team Rubicon has fully embraced Hunt’s final exhortation to his friends, “Inaction is not an option.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly labeled the name of the current mission and the number of volunteers who first deployed to Haiti.