Reflection from TR photojournalist Bernadette Matthews

Bernadette Matthews, TR photojournalist from Los Angeles

I think Joplin was my Eat, Pray, Love. I know, I know, I’m comparing a natural disaster with horrifying consequences to a pretty bad Julia Roberts film. But hear me out – Eat, Pray, Love is billed as “One woman’s search for Everything.” My opportunity to go to Joplin came in the midst of a similar personal search. And I’m certain that my one week in Missouri has not only challenged my worldview, but also given me a new path to conquer.

On Monday, May 23, I received three pieces of bad news before 10am. Just a rough start to the week. The third and most upsetting, was that my good friend Meg’s home had been destroyed in Joplin. Something happened then. In the Monday morning craziness of the advertising agency I work for, chaos of client meetings and status updates whirled around me as I stood still, thinking. I knew I had to go. I knew I had to help, somehow. My honest thoughts? “I need to get the f- out of LA and into Joplin NOW.”

I told my bosses with relatively little grace and explanation – “I have to go, I won’t be here the rest of the week, I have to go to Missouri,” and proceeded to run to the bathroom and weep, thinking “WHAT am I doing? I’ve never done anything like this before! These vets are going to think I’m useless and I’m going to be an emotional wreck. Am I strong enough to handle this, to help the people down there?” My angel of a friend/mentor and the Director of Program Development of TR, Joanne, talked me down. She said she knew I was strong enough to go, to represent TR as a journalist and photographer, that she saw something was telling me I was meant to be there.

One red eye flight from LA to Arkansas and a drive to Springfield later, I stood alone in an empty parking lot of a church, waiting for members of TR to arrive. My journey had begun.

I won’t go into the details of my week in Joplin – you’ve seen the news clips, read TR’s blogs and looked at the pictures of the amazing men and women of TR helping the victims of Joplin’s tornado. What’s amazing about TR is two-fold: the veterans obviously lend a tremendous hand in disaster relief, using their skills from the military to provide direct assistance in a very tangible way. But I think the veterans (and civilians like me who participate) also receive an amazing gift from the work they conduct in disaster zones. Bonds are formed with the residents they help, with the other vets, and with a previously off-the-map city that will always keep a special place in the hearts of the volunteers who toiled there.

So, what about Eat, Pray, Love? What’s the connection here? In the film, Julia Roberts’ character attempts to find herself by enjoying life in Italy (“eat”), finding her spirituality in India (“pray”) and looking for a balance of the two by finding “love” in Bali. In Joplin, I didn’t have to worry about food. Volunteers were basically tripping over bags of sandwiches and homemade hamburgers and hot dogs that residents would bring out for us. I didn’t have to spend $15 on lunch from a trendy vegan restaurant in LA, as I did most days while at work. In LA, food was something that broke up my day, got me a break from work. In Joplin, food was sustenance, not thought about until our guys couldn’t cut down another tree without nourishment to keep them going. Food in Joplin was a moment to connect at dinner, reflect on the day while cramming pizza down out throats before collapsing into bed.

Did I pray in Joplin? Hell yes, constantly. I prayed that none of our guys would saw off an arm or a leg while clinging precariously to a tree limb they were cutting off. I prayed for the people we were helping. I prayed for the missing. I prayed that we would be of use to the people of Joplin – and to heal their hearts just a little. I prayed as I turned over the shattered remains of a crib I found while conducting search and rescue – that I wouldn’t find a small child under the splinters of wood.

And what about love? Well, the gentlemen of Team Rubicon are downright handsome, talented and brilliant, yes. Watching these guys handle chainsaws can make a girl’s heart skip a beat. But I found love in Joplin by opening my heart to a world I knew very little about – the military and veterans. It was a world I didn’t grow up around, and I personally knew no one who has served. I honestly didn’t understand their world. But after working side-by-side with these amazing veterans, my heart opened. I saw their incredible drive to serve, their need to use the skills they had honed while overseas, and above all else, their incredible desire to be in community with other veterans while helping those in their darkest hours.

I want to thank TR and the volunteers for allowing me on this journey, clueless as I may have been. My eyes and my heart were opened in Joplin; barriers and stereotypes were broken down. I feel like something quite big is in front of me as I continue working with this amazing organization, and for that I am utterly thankful.

Memorial Day tribute from Team Rubicon

Edit by Kirk Jackson and score by George Gabriel of Going Home Pictures and ZapZorn Productions respectively, each volunteers of TR’s Media Outreach team.

Operation Janis – End Reflections

Tyler Tannahill (left) served in Afghanistan in 2006 and Iraq in 2007

Things are wrapping up here for Team Rubicon and Operation Janis here in Joplin, MO. Most of the crew left late last night or early this morning. We are just wrapping up some final admin stuff and accounting for all of the gear. Being here since Tuesday (I think I got here Tuesday- all the days are running together) it has been an amazing experience to work with Jake and all the other TR volunteers. From helping families search for specific items in the rubble, patching roofs, clearing trees, to assisting in Search and Rescue this week has opened a new chapter in my life with assisting with TR wherever the needs may be. It was a great honor to take charge of Operation Janis the last two days and coordinate the relief effort. Thank you to all the donors and those who supported TR in the past and future. TR is making drastic change in these areas and our mission could not be possible without you all.

Tyler Tannahill, Marine Corps – Infantry

 

Clem helps clear brush and debris during a SAR operation

This was a great bunch of men and women I worked with.  I hope I’ll be able to work with them again in the future.  I enjoyed learning from people with really cool skills.  I felt like we did something worthwhile for the community.  For example, Duquesne didn’t seem like it was getting as much support as Joplin and TR went in and made a positive impact helping out CERT teams.

Clem, US Army, Retired

 

 

Brad Crescenzo in Joplin

It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with Team Rubicon. I was one of the few civilian volunteers with Operation Janis, and I found the military background of most of the team members to be a huge asset. The efficiency, adaptability, and work ethic of the group was incredible. I never heard a complaint, and never saw hesitation. The leadership within Team Rubicon and the discipline of the participants  proved to be invaluable in making the most of our limited resources. I see a promising future for Team Rubicon. I would gladly deploy with these guys again, anytime, anywhere.

-Brad Crescenzo, Wilderness First Responder

 

Tom Hudson, from Little Rock, AR

I have been responding to disasters fairly regularly since Katrina, but I was curious and maybe a little apprehensive about what I would encounter as one of the only civilians on Operation Janis. The collective military experience of TR proved to be a major asset on our job sites; our team was cohesive and organized, physically capable, enthusiastic about the work, and eager to take on new challenges, solve problems creatively, and adapt and advance. I have been a fan of TR since their fast response to the Haiti earthquake of 2010, and was surprised and happy to have the opportunity to work with them close to home. This is easily one of the best teams I have worked with.

- Tom Hudson

Clay led the fight against “unchecked incompetence” at the VA

“I can track my pizza from Pizza Hut on my BlackBerry, but the VA can’t find my claim for four months,”

Clay Hunt, an original member of our seminal mission to Haiti, lost his battle with PTSD and post-war depression on March 30th when he took his own life. Clay and his mother are featured in this NBC Nightly News piece about the unchecked incompetence of the VA.

Before he lost the battle, he led the fight, in this May 31, 2010 front page article in the LA Times: Veterans Affairs wants to be an advocate, not an Enemy by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Zucchino. Read the article, watch the video, get angry, and then act by contacting your Congressman today.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Day 6 update from Joplin and Duquesne

We spent the first part of today finishing work on a culdesac named Murphy Lane.  The job started yesterday.  When we arrived, no clearing crews or volunteers had visited yet.  There were at least twenty trees down.  We fanned out between the trailers and started demolishing logs, brush, metal debris and anything else foolish enough get in the way.

At first the street was quiet.  We were the only noise I could hear.  A funny thing happened half an hour into our normal work rhythm.  All the neighbors came out and joined us.  Some fed us.  Some watched and cheered us on.  Some pulled out chainsaws and went to work nearby.

None of the men in the culdesac have slept much since the tornado came.  Everyone’s a bit shaken, but, specifically, their sleep patterns have been hit the hardest.  This morning, one of the husbands came out to talk to Brad Crescenzo.  “Last night when I saw you guys here was the first night I was able to sleep since this happened.”

Nicole Green, Former Captain, USAF

Brad hacks away at a tree on Murphy Lane

Day 6 photo of Team Rubicon and fellow Joplin volunteers

In the afternoon, the team helped with search and recovery efforts in Duquesne, MO.  It was a long day of looking for the missing, crawling or cutting our way through debris. Not what we foresaw for day six after a tornado, but 100 people remain unaccounted for.

Team Rubicon, Joplin, MO.

Tetanus shots for TR

Tom Hudson from Little Rock, AR

Tyler Tannahill, Marine Infantry veteran, from Overland Park, KS gets a tetanus shot in a Duquesne church parking lot.

Reflection from Nicole Green

This morning we tarped a roof. A steep, slippery roof with a large hole that had to be covered as soon as possible. Otherwise, insurance would not cover repairs, because additional rain damage could not be distinguished from initial tornado damage. By we I mean the guys tarped the roof and I held the ladder still when they climbed up or down. I excel at ladder-holding. It’s a vital role.

We didn’t tarp the roof with just any old tarp. The tarp was fantastic. It was a Harrah’s Casino advertisement, and it was large enough to cover at least three roofs.

While busy not holding the ladder, I ate fresh spearmint leaves and struck up a conversation with Debbie, whose house we were tarping. We share the personality trait of trying to singlehandedly save the world without knowing how to take care of ourselves. Debbie is focused on being strong. On staying strong, to support family, friends and neighbors who rely on her strength. She is praying for all of Joplin, and for hope and strength that exceed the amount of pain and hurting, to come from the aftermath of the tornado.

Just after we got the tarp up, the rain started. Levels of rain that, as a Team Rubicon teammate put it, are equal to a cow peeing on a flat rock.

Nicole Green
Former Captain, USAF

TR tarps a roof with a banner advertisement for Harrah's Casino - thanks Harrah's!

Team Rubicon Chows Down

Team Rubicon grubs on some hot pizza after a long, cold and wet day in the field. Mazzio's made it, but the TR Nation bought it! Thanks for all your support and for making this possible.

What has Joplin meant to me?

I find it difficult to find words that describe what I’ve seen this past week in Joplin, MO. For one, the devastation that this town suffered is absolute and merciless. This tornado has taken an entire section of this mid-sized America city and turned it into a memory. The images seen while driving through town are breathtaking; photos and videos cannot begin to convey the magnitude.

It has been hard, driving through the city, because as I drive I see my own hometown. Rangeline Road is my 53rd St; St. Mary’s Catholic my Our Savior Lutheran; Joplin High School my PV High, and so when I drive it becomes very personal and close to home. I look out and I don’t know how anyone survived–but then I hear the stories, the stories of fathers covering their families in the bathtubs, of children helping dig out their parents. I’m amazed at the power of the human spirit, at the kindness neighbors show one another, and strangers from across the country bestow upon an unknown town.

Joplin has made me appreciate everything in my own life that much more; which is weird to say after two wars, Haiti, Chile, and Tuscaloosa. I can’t really describe why; perhaps its the eerie similarity between towns, or perhaps its the absolutely visceral stories I’ve heard every day. Maybe it’s simpler, maybe it’s just that I’m alive, with a roof over my head, and food in my stomach. Or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s because I got to help these people get through the worst week of their entire lives, and do it alongside men and women who were with me during the worst points of mine.

Jake Wood
President, Team Rubicon

Operation Janis: Day 5 afternoon photo journal

The team takes refuge from a sudden storm that rolled through - lightning, thunder and hail. Give Joplin a break!

Casey (active duty army)

Tom pulling off an impressive balancing act with the chainsaw while Tyler and Bailey wait to pull down the tree.

This is Cable. TR helped pull several large trees off the roof of his house.

Jake and Marc (active duty army) figuring out how to get the trees off cable's roof.

Another shot of the house TR tarped before the storm hit.