Tears roll down the cheeks of the face in front of me as I listen to a woman paint the scene of a deer running to escape the flames of a burning field only to come up short. The warning of the fire came too late and she had no time to grab any belongings before she fled. The lady lost her home and was staying in a nearby hotel with her sick mother. I had no idea how many people I would meet in the coming week with similar stories.
Miles and miles up a dirt road off the beaten path I feel sweat dripping down my back. The trees that once provided shade are charred black. I feel as if I am in a post apocalyptic scene from Mad Max. Only a field of burnt metal remains where a house once stood. The thousands of dollars of collectables that once filled a man’s home left in a billowing plume of smoke. Now that he has lost everything, I find out that he is reconnecting with his family after years of separation.
Plywood spay painted red with “You loot, we shoot” greets my partner and I as we enter a driveway. A weary lady comes out and asks who we are. She has forgotten her glasses inside and cannot see us well. We introduce ourselves and ask if she knows about Team Rubicon. She doesn’t so we tell her and are invited into her home. We learn that her barn caught fire with the animals still inside. She begins to cry and can’t believe that veterans would fly from all around the country to help her for free. We give her a hug and head out to greet more people.
My team of five sits on the ground against a truck hiding from the scorching sun. We try to hydrate between our laughter as we tell jokes and share stories. We finish our bottles and head back to work. No words are necessary once we begin. We have a two-story house on a hillside burnt to the ground that we must separate into metal and debris piles using nothing but some hand tools and a couple wheelbarrows. What would be a daunting task for most we take on full-speed. When we finish, we find out the owner donated some heavy equipment for a week! Our capabilities have just grown exponentially.
Two Sailors, three Marines, and a few Army vets walk into a bar. It sounds like the beginning of a joke but it is far from it. We mean business. The sun rises early and with it the heat, which means we must start early, but not before some fellowship with my new friends. We share stories and speak in a familiar way as if we had always known each other and were catching up. Where we once were separated by different branches, we now identify as one.
It’s lunchtime and all the teams are pulling into the FOB to eat. Another group of TR volunteers arrive as it’s my time to head home. I walk around and thank everyone. We give handshakes and hugs and make plans to meet again. It is a bittersweet moment every vet knows all too well. “Until next time,”I say as I no longer believe in goodbyes. I refuse to contemplate the idea that some of us may never cross paths again.
I end up giving another TR friend a ride to the airport. He’s headed back to Hawaii to prepare for two hurricanes headed toward the islands. We grab some pizza outside Seattle and discuss how it feels like getting back from deployment. The city almost feels new again, the food tastes better, and the air is refreshing. I am grateful for everything in this moment and look forward to making it home.
The satisfaction that comes from being welcomed into a community to help serve is a tremendous feeling. Hearing peoples’s stories, receiving hugs, and being truly appreciated by those you serve is heartwarming. There is more to TR though. It is therapeutic for many because of those you serve with. Without TR, I would not have had the opportunity to meet the diverse group of people I did and establish new networks across the nation. It is powerful to be able to discuss experiences that only others who served would understand. Team Rubicon is the piece in my life that was missing after getting out of the military.
I cannot express enough gratitude to all the donors that make TR possible. Your donations do more than support disaster relief. You are giving veterans something they need. You are bettering lives. In a strange way, I feel as if I benefit more than the people I help. I almost feel guilty even though I know I am volunteering my time. Service for some is a way of life that doesn’t end when you take off the uniform.
I hope these short stories give you an idea of what it is like, and what it means to me, to be a part of Team Rubicon.