Fathers and Kids Prove Volunteering is in the Blood

Joanna Manning

From the father-daughter duo who earned a common language from time in the field to the WWII Navy veteran who became an honorary Greyshirt thanks to his volunteer son, Team Rubicon celebrates Father’s Day with a look at some Greyshirt dads.

Whenever Patrick and Ian Cobbs hit the road to deploy on a Team Rubicon operation, you can bet ’80s music will be blaring from the speakers. Ian has assembled a playlist specifically for this purpose, and every time he hears a song that he recognizes from “his father’s generation,” he adds it. Already they have about eight hours’ worth of music.

That playlist has come in handy for the Michigan-based Greyshirts, who have deployed on Team Rubicon operations together six times since 2018.

Father Patrick Cobbs, a U.S. Air Force veteran, got his start with Team Rubicon in 2015, and a 2016 deployment in response to flooding in West Virginia was all it took for him to be all-in on the Team Rubicon mission.

“I was able to find the camaraderie that I was missing from the service. And I was able to find something that was bigger than myself,” says Patrick.

Also feeling the pull to be part of something greater than himself, Patrick’s son Ian joined the Air Force when he turned 18 in 2018. But when a medical condition forced him out of basic training, he found himself adrift.

“The military was what I wanted to do,” Ian said. “I felt that I was a part of something, and to be sent home from that was really hard. I was in a dark place.”

Ian (on stump) and Patrick Cobbs on deployment.

Patrick worried for Ian and suggested he might find in Team Rubicon the community and purpose that he was suddenly missing.

Ian brushed off the suggestion for a bit but in 2019 finally relented. On his first, operation, a flood response in Ohio, Ian was made a strike team leader, effectively making him his father’s boss. Ian relished the leadership opportunity, which helped him earn a task force leader position on a feeding operation in Detroit during the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, he was in a position of authority over his father, though they seem to see each other as teammates above all else.

Serving together has helped both gain appreciation for the other’s strengths. During sawyer training, Patrick had to resist the urge to hover over his son as he learned, but Ian quickly demonstrated his proficiency with the chainsaw. “There were times that he was correcting me,” Patrick said. “He has really grown in that position.”

Meanwhile, Ian’s admiration for his father is clear. “My father is giving a giving man. “He served his country. He’s a firefighter. Above that, throughout the COVID response, he will take the days that he’s not working and be there for Kick the King [Team Rubicon’s operating name for all of its coronavirus-related responses],” said Ian. “That shows how much he’s willing to give. On the days that he has off of work, he’s still out there helping people.”

A Daughter’s Surprise

When Mike West, a member of Team Rubicon’s Incident Management Team who deployed to the Navajo Nation as Team Rubicon provides medical support to the Indian Health Services, became a Greyshirt, daughter Cara West began seeing him in a whole new light.

“I’ve always seen him as this incredible badass,” Cara said. “He’s very smart, and very wise, and to see him in a servant role, which is what he does as a mentor in the incident management team, is definitely very eye-opening for me,” she said.

A U.S. Army, National Guard veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm then spent 25 years as a law enforcement officer, Mike wanted to continue serving communities in need during his retirement. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey provided the motivation to sign up for Team Rubicon, and he’s been moving up the ranks ever since.

Cara West, in purple, with her dad, Mike, and others on an operation.

Cara saw the passion her father had developed for his service in Team Rubicon and wanted to be a part of the team as well. As soon as she turned 18, she signed up, hoping to surprise her father. In such a close-knit community, though, some secrets are hard to keep. While working on a response to Hurricane Florence, Mike received a call from a field leader telling him Cara had popped up on her roster. He’d had no idea.

“I was really proud when she signed up without even discussing it with me,” Mike said, noting that his daughter has always had an independent streak. She even completed sawyer training without him, perhaps not an obvious choice for a teenage girl. “She’s always wanted to branch out and do her own thing,” Mike said.

“Growing up, my dad and I were very close. He’s a retired police officer, and I always wanted to be a police officer as well,” she says. Since becoming a Greyshirt, she has decided to follow in her father’s emergency management footsteps, instead. She plans to begin college in the fall and hopes one day to work for FEMA.

The joys and challenges of deployments have given father and daughter other new ways to relate to each other, too.

“We have this common language and experience now, and I feel like I can mentor her further as she pursues her career,” Mike said. “We encourage each other.”

A Sawyer Instructor Known for Sawing Logs

Providing mutual encouragement during an op may be a given, but even the best relationships have some limitations. Team Rubicon’s Southwest Deputy Director Mike Gorham is willing to muck out houses or run a chainsaw with his father Charlie, just don’t ask him to bunk with him.

“He snores something terrible,” Mike said.

Charlie just laughed when offered the opportunity to defend himself. “If you’ve ever been in a gymnasium with a lot of Team Rubicon people, there’s an awful lot of noise in there,” he said. “I’m not the only one.”

Greyshirts Chuck and Mike Gorham.

After the younger Gorham, Mike, completed his service as an Army Airborne Ranger in 2014, he signed up for Team Rubicon looking for a change. He was drawn to the cutting-edge nature of the organization’s relief efforts and quickly threw himself behind the mission, earning a Clay Hunt Fellowship in 2016. After completing the fellowship, he succeeded in recruiting both of his retired parents to the cause.

“He pretty much roped me into it,” Charlie said. “I’ve run a chainsaw, and I used to own my own bulldozer, so Mike thought I’d be a good fit.”

Charlie’s experience with the machinery led him to become a heavy equipment operator and sawyer instructor for Team Rubicon, a position that his son says has shown him just how extroverted his father really is.

“If you interview a hundred people, they’ll all know who Chuck is,” Mike said. “They’ve had him as an instructor or a strike team leader. He’s a personality.”

Mike and Charlie have deployed together a half dozen times in the last few years and are quick to cut any sentimental musings about one another with an edge of gentle ribbing. But make no mistake, they clearly love working together. “Anytime he shows up we have a good time,” Charlie said.

Plus, volunteering together gives Mike extra time with his father. “We live in different states, so it’s nice to have three or four more times a year to see each other on these ops,” Mike said. “We’re at that stage where we’re more like friends.”

Charlie agreed, though while he is clearly proud of his son’s service, he still seems surprised at the path that Mike has taken.

“When he was a teenager, I couldn’t get him to do anything, you know? He spent all of his leadership potential trying to get out of doing chores,” he chuckled. “Then all of a sudden, he went into the military, and he’s a family man now. He worked his butt off and grew up,” he muses, then pauses. “I see a lot of myself in him.”

WWII Veteran Earns Honorary Grey Shirt

When Pacific Northwest Field Operations Lead Bill Blair delivers his father’s eulogy this summer, he’ll be wearing the elder Blair’s honorary grey shirt.

The men weren’t always close. Growing up in Oregon, Bill saw little of his father, Douglas, who was a traveling salesman. At 17, he promised himself that, should he ever have a family, he wouldn’t be gone all of the time.

“Well, in my professional career, I wound up doing the same thing,” Bill said a bit ruefully. After a stint in the U.S. Army—he joined in 1968—Bill went on to a career in the event industry and fair management in California. His service to country would turn out to be a bonding point for the men later in life.

After Bill returned to his hometown of Monmouth, Oregon, in 2012, his father, Douglas opened up about his own service in the Navy.

Bill Blair, with his honorary Greyshirt dad.

“Suddenly, he became a very proud WWII vet and started talking about the war,” Bill said. Douglas joined several veteran groups through the years, which were mostly populated by Vietnam veterans who loved listening to his stories. As did Bill.

When Bill accompanied his father on an Honor Flight to DC in 2017, their father-son bond also became a bond of brothers-in-arms. That same year, Bill joined Team Rubicon. His father was impressed that it was a veteran-based organization, but when he found out what Bill and the organization were doing, he was prouder still.

“He kept telling me every time I’d go out, ‘I would be there with you if I could, you know,’” says Bill.

Douglas’s advanced age and failing health prevented him from actively serving, however. So, Team Rubicon made him an honorary member, instead.

“I came back from the Houston rebuild a couple of years ago and brought back a grey shirt, and in the white stripe I put ‘Bill’s Dad.’ He wore that even up to the last week of his life.”

Douglas Blair passed away March 8th at 94 years old with Bill by his side. The family had to postpone his celebration of life because of COVID-19.

“I spent the last week with him, and it was the best week I ever spent. “We talked a lot. I did some things I thought I would never ever do in my life as a caregiver. But I didn’t hesitate,” Bill said. “I was just so happy I was able to be there.”

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