Mucking-out Fort Knox

Stephanie West

Stephanie West is a U.S. Navy veteran from St. Joseph, MI. She went to the Institute of Flight Operations and received her Associate's degree in Human Services from the University of Phoenix.

I was chosen for the first time to be a team leader for Team Rubicon on Operation Seymour Action. I was an untested leader. Command and general staff saw something in me that I had lost sight of over the years. They trusted my judgment, skills, and leadership more than I did.

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When I showed up to the home my team would be working on, I was overwhelmed by the beauty and work that needed to be done to truly help the homeowner. It was the home of a Vietnam Veteran and his wife, Mr. & Mrs. Casey who had lived together for over 30 years. His health was failing and their home was flooded from Hurricane Matthew.

Their home was discovered by luck by a volunteer member with local knowledge of the area. The home was built up to incredibly tough standards; it was constructed with double-paned drywall with an inch and a half of wood paneled tongue and grooved slates that traveled from the floor through the ceiling. We nicknamed the home “Fort Knox.” It just so happened that one of the original home builders was a family friend, who arrived later to help and explained it was built in such a way because of the noise from the nearby Air Force base.

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I couldn’t wrap my head around how to get through the wall to the insulation. At first everything I tried wasn’t working. I probably tried 25 different ways to make it easier on my crew who were facing frustration themselves.

I was not going to let Fort Knox beat me. It was a puzzle I needed to figure out.

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On the second day I found a successful method and was elated to show my kick ass crew! We resorted to using sawzalls and circular saws to cut through the first two layers of the wall, making it easier to reach the insulation. The best moment was half way through the day when I went to check on everyone and walked through the house. Every single one of my strike team members had a smile I could see through their N91 masks, they cheered each other on, drenched in sweat and dry wall.

My teammates and I were dedicated and relentless, and through trial and error, we deconstructed the damaged bottom half of a practically indestructible home. It was unlike any other muck-out most of us had ever performed.

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On the last day, I walked outside, took a deep breath and looked at Fort Knox. I felt this overwhelming sense of pride because as a team we were able to complete the impossible task. I still can’t shake the smile I get every time I think about that moment. I believed in myself in a way I have not in a long time.

It was a shame, I thought to have to knock down these beautiful walls and hand crafted floorboards, but the homebuilder assured us he already had plans to rebuild once we were finished.

One of the homeowners would come down from another property she was staying at to talk to me everyday. When we first met she was a woman of few words. As we kept coming back each day she would come down to talk to me more and more. I remember the first smile and the tears that ran down her face when I told her that we would spend as much time as it required to finish her home. I will always remember the first hug I received from her. She held me so tightly and wouldn’t let me go. She put her faith and trust in me. She trusted me at my word and believed in me like something I’ve rarely ever felt in my life.

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I also was able to meet the Vietnam Veteran himself for a short time and was able to give him the TR patch off my hat, this was the ultimate sign of respect from me. He held it in his hands and looked up at me and said “I’ll always hold this close to my heart,” as he put it in his top chest pocket.

1-61Team Rubicon allowed me to find a part of myself that I thought did not exist anymore. I found purpose again, I found faith in not only myself but others. I found the pride I once felt. I found myself again.