Deploying veterans for disaster relief: A Q&A with Jake Wood of Team Rubicon

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Team Rubicon’s latest mission is called Operation: Greased Lightning. What does that mean, you ask?

In this powerful talk, given at TEDxSanDiego in 2011, Jake Wood shares his experience co-founding Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization that uses veterans to do the difficult work of search and rescue, supply disbursement and debris cleanup, helping those in devastated areas while simultaneously giving veterans a renewed sense of purpose. It’s a powerful solution to two problems.

“The first is that there’s inadequate disaster relief. It’s slow, it’s antiquated, it’s not using the best technology and it’s not using the best people,” says Wood in his talk. “The second problem … is very inadequate veteran reintegration. It’s a topic that’s front-page news right now. As veterans are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, they are struggling to reintegrate back into civilian life … We can use disaster response as an opportunity for service for veterans coming home. And we can use veterans to improve disaster response.”

Wood served for four years in the Marine Corps, doing tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon returning, he and several friends founded Team Rubicon. Their first initiative sent them to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where an earthquake had ripped the country apart and relief supplies were moving far too slowly. (Watch Jake’s 2010 TEDxSanDiego talk about Team Rubicon in Haiti.) From there, Team Rubicon sent volunteers to help after the tsunami in Chile and floods in Pakistan. In 2011, the organization set its sights on domestic disaster relief as well, sending volunteers to help after the tornados in Joplin, Missouri.

Which brings us back to Operation: Greased Lightning. Last year, Team Rubicon mobilized to provide disaster relief in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. Wood tells the TED Blog that the operation name was given because Sandy is the main character in the movie Grease.

The TED Blog caught up with Wood while he was organizing Team Rubicon’s Hurricane Sandy response. After watching his moving talk, read the short Q&A with him below.

What were your first thoughts hearing about Hurricane Sandy approaching?

What can we do — and how quickly can we do it.

What are some of the things Team Rubicon is doing to pitch in for Hurricane Sandy relief? 

We have been working around the clock since the Saturday before the storm. In the first week, we ran search-and-rescue operations, shelter management and debris clearing. As the efforts are transitioning to the recovery phase, we are mobilizing and deploying over 1,000 military veterans to move into a single community to lead recovery efforts and establish a battle plan to return to normalcy. Street by street, home by home. It will be Fallujah, but with chainsaws and shovels instead of tanks and rifles.

You gave talks about Team Rubicon at TEDxSanDiego in 2010 and 2011. How has Team Rubicon evolved since then?

Since then, we’ve expanded exponentially. In 2010 we saw ourselves primarily as an international disaster relief organization that used military veterans and focused on medical triage and training. However, in that first year we began to realize just how powerful the continued service was to the veterans who were involved, and we began to think about ways to expand programs to include more vets. The natural avenue was to drop the medical emphasis and expand into domestic disaster response. Since doing that, we’ve grown from 300 volunteers to 5,000 and our mission tempo has picked up dramatically.

In the past two years, what have been some of the Team Rubicon efforts have you been most proud of?

We’re most proud of recognizing and capturing the spirit of service that was inherent in the military veterans who were involved.  Our nation’s veterans are such an incredible resource, and I think we have a unique opportunity to prove it to our country.

What was your experience returning to everyday life after military service? Do you think the general public has a good understanding of what it’s like to return, or is there something it’s hard for us to get?

The general public will never understand what it’s like — it’s just not possible. It is very difficult, but fortunately for me, I founded Team Rubicon with William McNulty only a few months after I left the service, so there wasn’t a lot of time for me to get lost.

What skills do veterans have that make them a good fit for disaster relief?

First and foremost, it’s their ability to stay calm in incredibly stressful situations. I think this too often gets brushed aside. Disasters are incredibly fluid situations, and many people often go crazy with the uncertainty; however, this is exactly the situation that veterans have found themselves in for the last ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to that, veterans have great leadership skills, the ability to work in teams, and a unique knack for living in austere conditions.  Finally, they have a lot of the hard skills needed: emergency medicine, heavy equipment operation, and high-speed communications knowledge.

You say in your talk that the experience of volunteering for Team Rubicon has for some been as good, if not better, than therapy. Why do you think that is?

Veterans lose three things when they get out of the military: mission, community and a sense of self. Team Rubicon is able to provide these things to veterans in spades.  We have a clearly defined mission that our veterans buy into; they once again find themselves on the front lines, only this time in their communities after disasters rather than in the Middle East.

For more on Team Rubicon, head to their website or follow them on Twitter.

Note: This post originally ran on November 6, 2012. It was surfaced again on Veteran’s Day 2013.