Crossing the Rubicon
How a disaster relief organization is providing new service outlets for veterans
In Baghdad, nothing could break Adam Magers.
As a combat medic with a U.S. Army IED-clearance platoon who served in Iraq in 2007-08, his job wasn’t to avoid roadside bombs but to find them.
“We drove around at about 5 miles per hour, most of the time in a hot zone where we knew there’d be bombs,” he says. “I got blown up tons of times. Suddenly there’s just dust all around and you’re like, What just happened?”
He did that for a year.
Was he scared?
“There were times when I knew for certain that I was going to die,” says Magers, who was 21 when he first went to Iraq. “There would be days when my guys would get wounded in a big ambush and I’d have to go get them and I was convinced that this was the last thing I was going to do. But I was never overcome by the fear.”
For running into a destroyed building to rescue wounded comrades during the 2008 battle for Sadr City, he was awarded the Army Commendation with Valor. (It’s the blue building hit by rockets in this YouTube video.)
And he didn’t die in Iraq.
Adam Magers—at least the Adam Magers that Adam Magers knew—died about a year later, back home in the heartland of the USA.
In Kansas City, everything broke Adam Magers.
As severe anxiety and depression took over his mind and body, he couldn’t leave his apartment, couldn’t escape the fear of death.
“I’d get the feeling there’s a bomb in my trunk and I’d have to get up and go over and check the trunk, check behind the curtain, check in the dishwasher,” he says. “I had irrational fears of having a heart attack, a stroke, a blood clot, snipers shooting me through the window of my house.”
He began having daily panic attacks that he calls “fifty times worse than anything I experienced in war.”
“My life turned upside down,” he says. “Everything I thought I knew was trashed. I was forced to become a completely different person.” He began reading the Bible to try and figure it—anything—out, praying for help and guidance and becoming a Christian.
But as much as he needed support from above, he needed earthly help as well. He burned to find out from other people like him—other veterans—how they dealt with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But he didn’t know any military guys who talked about this stuff.
He was Googling “help for veterans” one day when he discovered Team Rubicon.
Jake Wood and William McNulty, two Marines who each served separately in Iraq and Afghanistan, founded Team Rubicon in January of 2010. Freshly out of the service and about to start an MBA program at UCLA, Wood was glued to his TV set as news of the massive earthquake that leveled Haiti unfolded.
“I remember thinking how similar that situation was to a combat zone: instability, limited resources, imperfect information, unstable population, things like that,” he says. “There was a lot of destruction, a lot of death and chaos. There was a lot
Wood also thought that the skills he’d learned from counterinsurgency—how to lead small teams, move swiftly and strategically, maintain and secure perimeters—could be useful in such a place and time, and he’d been wanting to be of more use since returning from war.
He contacted several aid organizations about going to Haiti with them as a volunteer, but none accepted the offer. So he called everyone he knew, including McNulty, put together a team of eight, and flew to the Dominican Republic.
The Artibonite River separates the Dominican Republic from Haiti. Everyone who heard what Wood and his team were planning to do—drive trucks loaded with supplies over the river and into Port-au-Prince—advised against it. Wood ignored them. And like Julius Caesar and his army after crossing Italy’s Rubicon River, they entered Haiti.
Over three weeks in Haiti, the original team of eight expanded to a total of 60 volunteers, mostly vets but also some civilian first responders and medical personnel, who ran mobile medical triage clinics. Back home in L.A., Wood and McNulty evaluated what they’d accomplished. They came to realize there were a lot of lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan that could have a big impact on disaster relief.
Later that year, to further prove their worth, the group they named Team Rubicon responded to several more disasters around the world: Chile after the tsunami, Pakistan after the flooding, and Burma and South Sudan to train medics in those humanitarian crises.
In 2011 Wood dropped out of school after one semester to work for Team Rubicon full-time. By then, he and the group’s other leaders had begun to realize that the work they were doing had as much impact on the veterans who participated as on the victims they served. It was cathartic, they heard from volunteers. It was therapeutic. It was so good to be around people who understood where they were coming from.
And then Clay happened.
Clay Hunt was Wood’s sniper partner in both Iraq and Afghanistan and one of the original eight Team Rubicon volunteers in Haiti. He suffered from PTSD and was a staunch advocate for mental health services for veterans—which made it all the more tragic when he took his own life in March 2011.
The team had already been thinking about how to engage more veterans more often, and to provide ways to keep those volunteers who needed its structure involved and connected even when there wasn’t an official mission to go on.
“But then it became, This is not a fucking option,” Wood says. “We need to do this fast and do it well. It was very personal to a lot of people.”
This meant focusing on helping the group’s own members as much as on helping the victims of disasters. (Wood describes Team Rubicon today as “a 50-50 split between veterans service and disaster relief.”)
Team Rubicon turned its attention toward domestic, rather than international, disaster response, giving volunteers a way to help in their own backyards after a tornado, hurricane, or other disaster. The organization also started offering disaster-relief training to members, and has partnered with Team Red, White, & Blue to encourage volunteers to stay physically fit.
Three years later, Team Rubicon has more than 18,000 volunteer members across the U.S.
Not many civilians can relate to how Adam Magers, Jake Wood, and the rest of the 2.3 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan feel back at home. But some can. Like, say, a nurse in a busy pediatric ICU, where babies born too sick to be given over to their mothers are brought.
That’s Jenna Brandolini’s chosen career.
“I have to help,” says Brandolini, 29, a program operations coordinator for Team Rubicon. “I have anxiety about standing by.”
She first heard of Team Rubicon while volunteering in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. She went to the shore with a few nursing colleagues, and a team from TR was helping out nearby. Back home in Philadelphia, she looked into the organization and signed up the following year.
As program operations coordinator for Pennsylvania for Team Rubicon, during the time she’s not working at the hospital, Brandolini organizes events, such as service projects, socials and appearances, in her state to engage members and support relief operations as needed.
“There are a couple of reasons I’ve found a home with this organization,” she explains. “One is my job. Where I work is super intense. I see a lot of things that a lot of people don’t know how to deal with. It’s hard to go home and talk about these things with your family or friends. Everyone in Team Rubicon gets that.”
Equally important to Brandolini are the friends she’s made. Whether it’s a two- or ten-day mission, disaster response is intense work, and bonds form quickly.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to go on a Team Rubicon mission,” she says, “whether that means using all my vacation, taking unpaid time off, or just saying to my boss, ‘I’m going.’”
“We’ve got a mission that’s easy for people to get behind,” says Wood. “There’s been no shortage of major catastrophes in the last four years.”
He adds that the need for veterans is well documented, whether it’s the failure of the VA or the suicide rate of American veterans: twenty-two every day.
“It comes down to: Veterans need a strong community and a strong sense of purpose when they come back,” he says. “And we try to give that to them.”
In Baxter Springs, Kansas, once again nothing could break Adam Magers.
It was the site of his first Team Rubicon deployment, cleaning up after a tornado hit the town, two hours from his home, on April 28, 2014.
He had a panic attack on the drive there. He stopped at a church for help, then got back in the car and kept moving forward, just like he’d done on bomb-clearing missions in Iraq.
The next day, while tearing down a garage with three other Team Rubicon members, he felt another attack coming on, but was afraid to say anything. Finally he spoke up. “Hey guys, I’m really struggling,” he said.
They all stopped what they were doing. One after another they told him, “It’s okay. I have PTSD, too.”
One of them showed Magers what he’d learned about meditation and breathing that has helped him through his own panic attacks.
“I broke down,” Magers says. “I’d been back for six years and I hadn’t really talked to veterans like this before. As soon as I did, I felt like I was at home.”
He’s now in touch every day via Facebook with the people he’s met through that mission and another he went on after a tornado in Nebraska. He has a business in Kansas City making and selling handcrafted custom furniture, and he spends a couple of hours a week helping Team Rubicon with its communications with other veterans service groups.
“I can’t convince myself that I’ll make it through the day,” Magers says when asked about his future. “Team Rubicon helps with that. It really does.”
- 12 million total U.S. military veterans
- 2.3 million U.S. veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan
- 22 U.S. military veterans commit suicide every day
- 92 percent of all veterans wish to continue serving society after leaving the military
Team Rubicon at a glance
- 18,000 volunteer members across the U.S. (80 percent veterans)
- 27 full-time staff, based in El Segundo, Calif.
- More than 75 relief operations since January 2010, including 26 in 2014
- Website: TeamRubiconUSA.org
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