I packed my rucksack full of the same supplies that I had many times before in my Army days. Plenty of dry socks, rain gear, sleeping bag, eye protection, work gloves, ACU’s and food for three days. As I loaded my boots into the top of my bag I noticed they still had a few small droplets on blood on them from a mission my unit conducted around the city of Tal-Afar, Iraq in 2005. It was then it hit me – like many times before I am once again packing all of the necessary gear to conduct an operation in an area that I was not familiar with and that held many unknowns. What was known to me was that this was a mission of a different kind. We weren’t going to clear buildings, engage insurgents or secure an LZ for a MED-EVAC bird. We were going to deliver disaster relief to our fellow Americans in Vermont who had seen their entire life’s memories wiped away by a tropical storm.
This team was comprised of our military’s brightest and best. A Blackhawk pilot, a Marine grunt, a Purple Heart recipient, a combat medic, a platoon leader, an air transportation NCO, an IS tech, and an engineer. Each individual had different war stories to tell and a myriad of life experiences to draw upon. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines were all represented proudly. None of these team members ever shared a foxhole, but what they did share was an innate desire to serve their country both in deserts and mountains far away, and in the flooded northeast hills of the country they swore to protect. All came together in Vermont for the common goal of using our years of military training and experience to offer a helping hand to our fellow Americans in need.
When we arrived on site in Grafton, Vermont for day one of our mission we quickly discovered that there was much work to be done and only so much time to do it. The local economy is reliant upon the Idyll dairy farm that occupied the outskirts of the town and that farm had not been operating since the storm. We learned from our contact within Grafton that the farm needed our assistance to get back on their feet. We loaded up in the trucks and headed towards Idyll Farms to see what could be done. The fencing was in disrepair and the livestock had not been able to graze due to the destruction. Our team leader spoke briefly with the farmer and assessed where we could help and we quickly got to work. Within hours we cleared the damaged fence line of debris and paved the way for the farm to be up and running quickly.
Our next stop was the town of Jamaica. The bridges in and out of the town had been destroyed and heavy machinery pounded away loudly to repair access into the town. The homes that had been next to the swollen river were literally teetering on the edge of the bank. Some homes were less fortunate and had been destroyed all together – only electrical wiring and exposed plumbing gave you an idea where the structure once stood. Telephone poles were snapped in half and the sludge filled nearly every basement. Not to be defeated by Mother Nature, the local townspeople had begun to rally a volunteer force to distribute food and supplies to the displaced homeowners. Their resolve was evident by the words, “We are Jamaica, we will survive” scrawled on a chalkboard outside the local coffee shop.
After making contact with the EOC, we learned that there was a house owned by an elderly couple down by the river that had been flooded with mud in the basement. We put on our work gloves, donned our masks and handed out the shovels. For the entire day we shoveled the grime and muck out of the basement. Bucket after bucket of mud was carried out of the basement and up the stairs with the never ending “thank you” from the home owner with every wheel barrel full of mud we removed. All the while her dog Biscuit ran around wondering exactly what we were all up to. The team’s spirits were high and we were all excited to see the progress we were making on her home. We were covered in mud, sweating through our shirts and loving every second of it. After the task was completed she handed each of us a piece of glass art that was made in town to show her appreciation. This simple trinket will always remind me of the smile on her face as we drove away after a job well done.
Our final day had the team assisting the town of Jamaica again with logistical support in the distribution of shelter material and supplies for the better part of the morning. We then got word that the nearby town of Wardsboro had been hit pretty hard as well so the decision was made to travel south and see where we could be of assistance. After attending their town hall meeting it was evident that there was yet again plenty of work to be done and a lack of an emergency support structure to accomplish the tasks. The decision was made that in order for all of the necessary tasks to be accomplished there needed to be a command and control center set up at the town’s fire house immediately. Once again, our team got to work.
We set up an operations center with a white board and overlay maps. We created a task list, conducted local recon to identify possible danger areas in case additional storms approached, coordinated day care for the local volunteers, went to the surrounding towns alerting them of the points of contact for assistance, posted on a local blog that volunteers were needed and began to create a plan of action based on our triage of the situation. It was our intention to create a fully functioning emergency support system that the town could utilize long after we had gone. It took no more than four hours to provide their local emergency responders with all the details and action items needed to effectively assist the townspeople through their difficult time.
Although none of the team had ever been in an exact situation like this – we all had a frame of reference for what needed to be done. We had all lived our lives for a time dealing with difficult situations while we wore this country’s uniform in very hostile situations. Adapt and overcome – just like we had all been trained to do.
As I reflect back over my experience with Team Rubicon the gravity of the situation continues to set in. It will be a very long time before the people of Grafton, Jamaica and Wardsboro ever have a sense that things are “back to how they were before the storm”. Our team’s mission was a small blip on the screen in the overall picture of what needs to be done long term in the state of Vermont. But what keeps me motivated is this: There is a farmer who is back to work because we were there. There is an elderly woman who can begin taking steps to piece her home back together. And there is a town that was given a usable model of what it will take logistically to bring their people back to their feet again.
The burning desire to serve our country that existed in our team member’s hearts years ago when we raised our right hand and swore to defend her from all enemies foreign and domestic – still exists within all of us. That desire for service coupled with our vast array of skills and abilities is what makes our team so efficient in situations like these. I for one needed this experience. I needed to be toiling again side by side with my fellow brothers and sisters in arms. I’ll never forget what we accomplished together as a team for the people of Vermont.
I hope that one day I’m lucky enough to cross paths with that elderly lady from Jamaica, Vermont walking her dog Biscuit up and down her street that was once washed away. If I do get that chance, I know I will be thanking her for allowing me this opportunity, instead of her thanking me.