On May 29, 2016 at 0130, I was coming up on day three of the Team Rubicon Wildland Firefighting Red Card Training with the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado. My cell phone started blowing up from one of the volunteer firefighters back home in Bandera County, where I serve as a firefighter and the president of the department. Originally, I ignored the call, but on the third call I finally answered, and my friend was in a full panic. Turns out, there was ongoing flooding, rapidly rising waters, five active water rescue calls and numerous people reported missing. She needed to know what to do because no one else had showed up at the station. As we talked through it, I realized I needed to head home soon.
The next day, I completed my Red Card training, jumped in the truck and drove straight home, arriving to water everywhere, debris everywhere, houses flooded vehicles strewn down a few roads and river paths. It was your typical TR disaster, but it was my home town, and we are a small place off the beaten path where everything just feels more personal.
TR and I have had a relationship for the last few years, with the last 15 months seeing me grow closer and closer to this organization I call family. Like the latest flavor of Blue Bell – I crave TR, preach TR, and live TR. This was my chance to show my community what TR was. Insert reality as over 30 counties in Texas were experiencing similar flooding and Region VI was wearing thin from near continuous operations month after month. Regardless, I was ready to do great things, and after lengthy chats with other people in leadership, some yelling and cussing, and some insistence that we could get in and out and do things right, we launched Operation Capital Cowboy just after the flood waters receded.
Over the last few months, I have found myself struggling with numerous mental health issues. I have been in and out of the hospital and been out on workman’s comp from my everyday federal law enforcement job. Struggling to find my sense of worth and feeling drained from being on the go for the last few months, I really wondered if I would completely screw things up in Bandera for both TR and my community. As I hastily compiled work orders, knocked out some projects with community volunteers to secure houses from ongoing storms, and pushed to build a team, I felt an unusual calm come over me. My fellow TR folks were rock stars, my remote staff folks came up with solutions for all of my problems, and the community around me blew up my phone (like seriously, until 1 or 2 in the morning!) begging to feed us, house us, and work with us. For someone jumping from working as a muck crew/sawyer/ops guy to serving as an incident commander on a small op (planned for 10-15 volunteers, graced with the presence of over 50), I found myself realizing we were going to kick ass and take names.
For the next few days, my team just did that. We served as force multipliers, knocking out every project we found and then some. So many folks showed up just wanting to make a difference for their community, and were stoked to have a way to do it efficiently and quickly. As we drank our final beers together, I couldn’t help but realize I was in a better place than I had been in a long time. That sense of purpose was back – I have missed that. My problems aren’t all behind me, my troubles aren’t over, but I came home exhausted and smiling – I’ve missed smiling. I learned that TR is most successful when we really exhaust all efforts to engage and work hand in hand with the community. I learned that our own volunteers feel even more accomplished on a day of working on a team of mixed TR and spontaneous volunteers who have different stories and backgrounds than they do than when it is just TR folks. Bridge the Gap is about giving purpose back to veterans, but in so many ways it is about helping veterans share their stories and co-exist in the crazy world around us. If my team went home feeling as accomplished as I do, then I did my job. Until next time TR, thanks for getting me through life.