During Disaster Relief, Change Your Socks

Pat Ross

What does "change your socks" mean? Greyshirt and veteran Pat Ross reveals what's behind the Team Rubicon adage, and how a military term took on new meaning.

At Team Rubicon, our veteran-based non-profit organization, we have a few key phrases that guide our decision-making. These phrases form expectations designed to cultivate a culture that is consistent with our mission — providing relief in the wake of disasters. One of those key phrases has taught me a lot about setting expectations. 

In 2017, my volunteer activation team, responsible for coordinating the movement of 10,000 volunteers to and from disasters, had been working 14 hours per day for five months straight responding to Hurricane Harvey. As the work slowed in December, we finally had the opportunity to take a break. The team was approaching burnout, or so I thought.

Woman sitting on pickup truck
A Greyshirt pauses for reflection during Operation Fox Yeah.

Without consulting any of my peers, my supervisor, or our People Ops team, I mandated that everyone on our small-but-mighty team take 10 days off, in addition to our Christmas to New Year’s break. It was time, I told the team to “change your socks.”

Yet when I issued that creed to the team (at the time three other full-time employees), their reaction was negative, resistant, and skeptical. I’ll refrain from quoting them directly, but suffice it to say that my unilateral decision seemed patronizing, paternalistic, and a violation of one of our culture principles: Adults Only. 

But, I stood by my decision and we took our Pat-mandated 10 days off. And for another six months, we didn’t revisit the subject of “changing our socks.” Then came June 2018. We were preparing for one of the most critical events of the Team Rubicon year: our National Leadership Conference. We’re used to operating in no-fail environments, but the Leadership Conference is a central, mission-critical opportunity. That is, it sets the tone and momentum for all of our disaster response operations for the next year. I wanted everyone on our team to be at 100%, ready to work and fully engaged.

And so, I told the team to change their socks. 

Once again, the mandate was met with fierce resistance. When I said, “change your socks,” the team heard, “leave your teammates and burden them with your share of the work.” I was uncharacteristically silent. The realization was a punch in the face. Our team rarely calls meetings, but we called one that day and it highlighted how seriously we took this disagreement. During that long-overdue talk, we also discussed what “change your socks” actually means. 

In the military, walking at a stupid-fast pace with all your gear and an ill-fitting pack is called a ‘hump.’ Whoever is leading the movement either plans to stop roughly every three miles or calls out a pause, based on conditions. During this time, individuals drop their packs to do as many adjustments as possible in the short break provided. Sometimes that’s a quick repair on a pack strap or reconfiguring a load. Sometimes, it means refilling a canteen. Sometimes, it’s the chance to remove the rock that found its way into your boot. 

Maybe it’s even the chance to change your sweat-drenched socks.

The spectrum of changing your socks varies from changing just one sock to seeing the corpsman or medic because your foot is broken or bleeding. But if you do change your socks, you change them one at a time, so that if something happens mid-change, you won’t be caught bootless. Once the ‘saddle up’ call is made, there’s no stopping that leg of the hump. Whether or not your boots are tied or canteen is refilled, the human train is rolling until the next stop.

Pat Ross and colleague
Author Pat Ross with another Greyshirt.

One of the most critical things you can do when you’re on a mission is to change your socks so your feet are more prepared to continue the ‘walk.’ It’s true in the military, and it’s true in humanitarian work. For us, we found that ‘change your socks’ is more about being ready to move out or lend support when it’s time to do demanding work.

Focusing even more, for me, ‘change your socks’ means: pause with purpose.

Rest, reflect, recharge, refresh, respite, relax, recalibrate, rework, rehydrate, recuperate, reboot, restart, review, and/or recover. Whether you change your socks, refill your canteens, review the route, or just sit on your pack and catch your breath, we will move out as a team. While changing your socks can mean a day off or vacation, it does not need to be. It is a purposeful pause.

Here are some of the dimensions we take into account:

Personal: Are there things I need to do that I haven’t yet done because of my work schedule
Professional: Are there items I owe myself or others that I could finish if I had a dedicated block of time
Physical: What do I need to do to stay healthy so I can be ready to deploy?
Spiritual: Who do I need to be to fulfill my expectations to myself or my faith?
Financial: What has piled up, disappeared, or expired while I was so focused on work?
Practical: Is my Go-Bag ‘rescue ready’ or at least packed?

When you change your socks, figure out who you need to be or what you need to do at 100% so that the team can accomplish more. Put this time on the calendar with the intent of helping the organization understand that we are halted as a team, or as an individual and that we will resume our march to build the best disaster response organization, as planned.

Now, at Team Rubicon, in order to deliver humanitarian aid everywhere from Bellevue, Nebraska to The Bahamas, we change our socks.


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