His name is Jake Wood and his story started with a simple Facebook post: “I’m going to Haiti. Who’s in?” It was January 2010, and the island of Haiti had just suffered a devastating earthquake with a still-disputed death toll of between 100,000 and 315,000.
Jake had only been out of the U.S. Marine Corps for a few months, and was planning to enroll in business school when he began seeing the pictures of the devastation in Haiti and thinking how much it reminded him of similar scenes from Iraq and Afghanistan, where he had served two tours of duty. He realized that the skills he had acquired in the service, including the ability to adapt to difficult conditions, work with limited resources and maintain security in a dangerous environment, were sorely needed. And that was when he put out the Facebook message. Wood persuaded his college roommate, a firefighter, to join him. Within minutes of seeing Wood’s Facebook post, another friend and former Marine, William McNulty, signed on. Interest quickly snowballed, and three days later, he and seven others were in the Dominican Republic, heading into neighboring Haiti with medicine and equipment.
Over the next three weeks, more than 60 volunteers — mainly from medical or military backgrounds — followed Wood’s lead and made their way to the stricken country to join his group. They set up triage centers in camps, treating whoever they could, and helped ferry people to hospitals. Wood estimates they helped thousands of Haitians.
They called their group Team Rubicon, in reference to the phrase “crossing the Rubicon,” which means passing a point of no return. Little did they know how prophetic that name would prove to be. All along, Wood thought of his sojourn to Haiti as a one-time event, still planning at that time to return home and start business school. But, as so often happens, life had other plans for Team Rubicon.
Wood and McNulty did some thinking and talking …
“We realized we were more effective than many organizations that were down there with us. We also realized that most organizations weren’t engaging vets on their own. So we said, ‘Let’s try to improve this.'”
And that is just what they did! Team Rubicon became a nonprofit, and in the first two years the group built an army of more than 1,400 volunteers — 80% of them military veterans — who respond to disasters and help those in need. They ran 14 missions in those first two years, running triage clinics after the Chile earthquake and the flooding in Pakistan. They traveled to Sudan and Myanmar to help people caught in regional conflicts. And in 2011, they removed debris and assisted in search-and-rescue missions following tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri.
In 2011, however, a personal tragedy caused the group to subtly change its focus. One of the members of Team Rubicon and Wood’s best friend, Clay Hunt, committed suicide. Hunt had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. It was a shock to Wood, as Hunt seemed to be adjusting well. He was literally a poster boy for returning veterans, appearing in a public-service announcement for a veteran’s advocacy group. And Wood felt guilty …
“It was tremendously difficult to feel like I had let him down, knowing that we had survived two wars together but that when things were easy and it had come to peace, that I wasn’t there enough for him. That has been a very tough battle for me, dealing with that.”
Hunt’s death made the group realize that while the job they were doing was important, so was the way in which doing the job was helping the veterans, giving them focus, making them feel useful. So the group changed the way it viewed itself, refocusing its own mission: Instead of being a disaster relief organization that uses veterans, Team Rubicon became a veterans’ support organization that uses disasters as opportunities for continued service.
“We’re giving them a reason to come together … and that community lasts long after the mission,” Wood said. “Right now, Team Rubicon is focused on how we can … get them involved in as many ways as possible.”
There are many, many success stories within the group, but here is one of the first …
Nicole Green served in the Air Force for four years, working as an intelligence officer in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. For her, finding Team Rubicon has been life-changing.
“When I got out of the military, it was very stressful,” she said. “You feel alone. You meet people who don’t understand your background.”
Green volunteered for the group’s first domestic mission, in Tuscaloosa. She enjoyed it so much that she helped out in Joplin less than a month later.
“I felt that I was doing something meaningful with my life again … using a lot of the same skills, but in a way that [was] constructive instead of destructive,” Green said. “And I was with other people who understood me … focused on a common goal. That was really a great feeling.”
Since its inception, Team Rubicon has grown by leaps and bounds and has participated in over 175 missions. The team now has about 33,000 members, and in 2016 Wood lamented that there just weren’t enough natural disasters to keep them all busy. He may feel a bit differently this year!
Remember Hurricane Harvey that hit the Houston area in August? Team Rubicon was there with floodwater rescue teams conducting door-to-door searches in and around Houston while reconnaissance teams conducted preliminary damage assessments. One team conducted an evacuation and cleared two full neighborhoods in neighboring Beaumont. A second rescue team conducted five evacuations, including two elderly residents and their daughter, and yet another conducted 21 rescues and evacuated 27 canines at an animal shelter.
And Hurricane Irma? Team Rubicon was there, too, with operations in Clay, Brevard, and Collier Counties, Florida. So far they have been conducting damage assessments, debris removal, muck‐outs, sawyer operations, and spontaneous volunteer management services to affected communities. This response is only the start of what will be long-term operations.
Team Rubicon expects to remain in both Texas and Florida for some time, helping residents recover from Harvey and Irma. And then came Maria …
It took them a few days to collect the needed equipment and supplies and get there, but Team Rubicon reached San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 25th, fully three days before the U.S. even lifted the Jones Act and committed to sending aid. Team Rubicon has been assessing hospitals for structural damage, assessing community needs, removing debris, and helping out wherever help was needed.
My time and space are limited, but if you are interested in learning more about Jake Wood and Team Rubicon, there is an excellent article/interview by author/editor Kyle Dickman. It is a bit lengthy, but a fascinating read.
In 2013, Mr. Wood gave a Ted Talk …
According to Team Rubicon’s website, their mission statement is …
“Team Rubicon unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams.”
Take a look at the website … I think you will be impressed. They are a class A organization, and their Board of Advisors include such notable retired Generals as Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus.
William McNulty and Jake Wood
I have the utmost admiration and respect for Mr. Wood and co-founder William McNulty for the great things they are doing. What started as a one-shot adventure has turned into a lifetime passion. We will never know just how many people suffering from natural disasters have been helped by the volunteers of Team Rubicon, nor the number of veterans whose lives were improved, perhaps even saved, by knowing that they still have value, that they are doing good things to help others.