December Tornadoes Burst the Bowling Green Bubble but Not My Spirit

Shannon Smith

A Greyshirt reflects on watching helplessly from afar as tornadoes raced through her hometown, then getting to work serving her neighbors.

I think six times is how many it finally ended up being. Six times I deployed in response to the tornadoes that rocked the southern Midwest last December. 

The weeks of my deployment weren’t consecutive, as they were for other Greyshirts I’ve met, but Operation Unbridled Spirit—Team Rubicon’s tornado response in Bowling Green, Mayfield, and Dawson Springs, KY—got this kick-ass civilian’s full grit for six deployments total. It doesn’t really matter that they were broken apart because it was essentially like one extraordinarily long day filled with some amazing highs—where my admittedly-loud laugh could probably be heard across the holler in Dawson Springs—as well as some lows where, despite my Kentucky-gal attitude, the tears wouldn’t be dammed. It’s taken me a while to write this, but it’s finally time for me to let everyone know what Team Rubicon, particularly Operation Unbridled Spirit means to me.

In the wee hours of December 11, 2021, a tornado burst through what my hometown had affectionately dubbed “the Bowling Green bubble.” That bubble has seemed to shield our town from serious weather that impacts the rest of the state. The threat of severe weather has come and gone countless times through my community without ever landing. In doing so, it has perhaps made us a bit complacent. It’s probably why some of our fatalities during the December tornadoes were due to people sleeping, unaware of the imminent threat to their lives. 

Greyshirts in Mayfield, KY, in early January 2022. Photo by Trang Le.

I wasn’t home when that demon tore through the streets I’d grown up on and around. I’m a glutton for punishment I guess because, in addition to working as a respiratory therapist and being a single mother to one kindergartner and a set of 3-year-old twins, I’m in graduate school. I’m earning my Master of Health Administration through the weekend program for health professionals at the University of South Carolina—while still living in Bowling Green. My courses meet in-person one weekend a month, and that December weekend was it. I’ve been doing this for almost three years now, but of all weekends to be away from my kiddos that one was by far the hardest.

That night, from a classmate’s apartment in Columbia, SC, I watched the news via livestream for hours. My classmate kept reassuring me that everything would be fine. I told her that the news station was a couple of miles from my house and as long as they were on air I wouldn’t be completely panicked. About one minute after the words left my mouth the station went black. I called the kiddos’ father and listened in horror, hundreds of miles away from my entire world, as my babies screamed while they sheltered in the bathtub with him. Then it was over. The tornado had bypassed his house. 

I didn’t really sleep much that night; I’m pretty sure I texted everyone in my phone, or they texted me. Everyone I loved was ok; I don’t know how, but they were. But come dawn, the night that had hidden the relentlessness of Mother Nature turned into a sunrise of shock at what lay twisted and scattered all around. Because I had class all weekend, I wouldn’t witness the devastation firsthand until that Sunday night, after my eight-hour drive back to Kentucky. 

Once home, feelings of helplessness slowly began to fade as Team Rubicon moved into a familiar dorm on Western Kentucky University’s campus, complete with a Christmas tree. Overnight 14 volunteers turned into 50. The stress, depression, and anxiety I had about everything going on in my life morphed into strength, knowledge, and power. 

Shannon Smith and a heavy equipment operator on deployment in Kentucky.

I’ve only been a Greyshirt for a year or two now, and I’d only deployed once before, to Waverly, TN, for a day-and-a-half in response to catastrophic flooding last August. But, that’s all it took for me to be completely hooked. So, I signed up to serve within my hometown. These are people just like me. They are my neighbors, my friends, my community, and they needed—and still need—help. My servant’s heart won’t let me see people suffer without doing something about it; not one person in the TRibe would, and it’s why Team Rubicon is a perfect fit. I want my kids to be proud of me. It is so hard to leave them each and every time, but when they find out about the not-so-great things that happen in life and ask me, “Mom, what did you do?” I want to be able to say, “Everything I could.”

I became fast friends and, for that matter, family with, veterans from quite literally every branch of our military; first responders like myself who were EMTs and firefighters; and kick-ass civilians, also like myself, from every walk of life. Everyone from a 19-year-old who I gave apple juice to during “beer circle” since we couldn’t exactly have a campfire inside the dorm, to a woman who is so well versed in everything TRibe that I became permanently attached to her and now text or call multiple times a week; to a sawyer who gave me my first patch and reminded me so much of my uncle that I’m sure he was tired of my incessant talking. There was the grumpy tarp dude who couldn’t help but smile when I brought him a cupcake and the nicest heavy equipment operator who I rode solo with for two days during the snowstorm and ridiculous single-degree weather. I will never be able to list all of y’all because I’d end up sounding like one of those stupid Oscars awards speeches.

There’s something about putting all of the other crap in life aside and doing a muck-out with an entire team of people who all just want to help and GSD. Genuinely help from the bottom of their sometimes-rugged hearts. 

This time around I did muck-outs, developed a pretty mean “swamper swagger,” was a spotter for heavy equipment operators until I felt like my legs wouldn’t carry me anymore, spoke with local media, shuttled volunteers and showed them my ruined city, and fed and played tug-of-war with a homeowner’s pig, aptly named Bacon. I probably would have grabbed a chainsaw or tarped a roof if someone would have let me. I laughed and bonded with more people than I had in years. I was shocked because I’m a lot on one plate; pretty intense with a side of crazy, but overall kind and caring. I fit right in with Team Rubicon. I’d found my TRibe. 

If I had a million more days in my life and could spend every minute saying thank you it would never be enough. Team Rubicon brought in hope where there was pain and help where there was no might left. Greyshirts even served my Great Aunt whose house was a complete demo by helping pack all her things into a Pod for her. It definitely got me some brownie points with my family.

In the days since the operation ended, I’ve changed my socks, texted my new friends (even when they don’t want me to), completed a Core Ops class, and attended a Disaster Training Camp the South Branch had in Florida. Having never even started a chainsaw before, I officially became a Saw 1. 

There are worse things in life to be in love with, for sure. Having a servant’s heart and getting to express that love through Team Rubicon as a Greyshirt is one of my greatest.

Greyshirt Shannon Smith mugs for the camera during tornado clean-up in Kentucky.
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