Grit and Old Glory On Display in Florida

Ryan Harris

A Greyshirt and Air Force veteran reflects on his first deployment, and on responding to Hurricane Ian with Team Rubicon.

A bright flash of the lights at “Oh Six Hundred” at Lee County’s Lake Kennedy Senior Center brought a room filled with military-style cots to life. The 60-some volunteers, most of them former military, were eager to get after the day, even before the sun was up. A few caught a quick morning smoke; others grabbed a toothbrush and then breakfast to begin the long day. With boots laced, rosters and assignments checked, and equipment staged, all supported by the quiet professionalism of the logistics team’s meal-prepping and staging equipment starting at 4 a.m., the volunteers made their way outside for the morning brief. 

They heard about the communities they’d be serving; places like Cape Coral, Fort Myers, and Matlacha Island, where fellow Americans’ homes had been shredded by Hurricane Ian. They listened to details of the work they’d be doing, the toppled trees they’d be sawing, the roofs they’d be tarping, and the homeowners they’d be serving. 

Morning brief in October during Operation Sunshine Strong. Photo by Jason Whitman.

As the morning brief came to a close with two claps and a “Woo,” strike teams armed with shovels, hammers, blue tarps, wood furring strips, and chainsaws, instead of the M-4 rifles of many a bygone military life, set out to tackle the tasks of the day. 

What began in early 2010 as humble beginnings for a handful of military veterans helping quake-shaken Haiti has exploded into the nonprofit Team Rubicon. With an army of volunteers—known as Greyshirts—that now numbers over 150,000, Team Rubicon gets communities struck by disasters back on their feet faster. 

The Greyshirt uniform is a grey shirt with a white stripe across the front bearing the volunteer’s name; the Greyshirt motto is “Get Shit Done”—aka GSD. That no-BS attitude, often associated with military culture, seems to attract civilians and veterans alike to the volunteer ranks. Myself included. Recently retired from the Air Force and newly settled in the Tampa area, I’d long been an admirer of Team Rubicon’s mission and purpose. When the fact I had a few weeks free before starting a new job coincided with my natural instinct to serve, I had all the incentive I needed to deploy on the nonprofit’s response to Hurricane Ian.

Those who filled the Greyshirt ranks for that week I was deployed in October in Lee County, FL, were a diverse mix. The youngest was 23; the oldest was 67. They had come from all corners of the country to help—Montana, Texas, New York, Colorado, Ohio, Maryland—and even from Argentina and Israel. Some had no jobs, and some were between jobs; some held Ph.D.s, and a few were heading to medical school. An insurance data science guru from Michigan, a New Mexico bed-and-breakfast owner, and corporate executives even lined the ranks. 

No matter the background—military or civilian—all were there for a single purpose: to GSD and help southwest Florida communities get back on their feet following Hurricane Ian’s destructive winds, rain, and storm surge that had ripped the region apart nearly a month earlier. They would be part of Team Rubicon’s largest operation since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the massive geographical extent of the disaster wrought by Hurricane Ian would make recovery operations a complex and daunting task. 

Clearing Hurricane Ian debris in Florida shortly after the storm. Photo by Jason Whitman.

Following each morning brief, the intrepid volunteers fanned out across Lee County in teams of four to six, sporting military-style phonetic names—like Alpha, Delta, Echo, and Juliet—each with specific objectives. Each Team rubicon “Op,” as it is called, starts with survey teams collecting on-the-ground information from communities and homeowners in dire straits. I saw firsthand all week why the site survey is the most important step in the whole process. Without accurate site surveys, homeowners do not get the help they need or strike teams arrive without the right equipment to tackle the tasks at hand. 

Many communities are often unaware of Team Rubicon’s existence and mission to help those in need, especially veterans and the under- or uninsured. This is where Team Rubicon survey teams match needs with muscle. In the early days of Ian’s aftermath, initial site survey teams charged forward to communities like Cape Coral and Matlacha and uncovered at least 150 homes and families ready for Team Rubicon disaster recovery assistance, everything from basic tarping to patch leaky roofs, to clearing downed trees, to full “muck-outs” that would have Greyshirts knocking down moldy walls and clearing furniture and debris from rain- and surge-soaked homes. 

Once on the job, it became a hotly-contested debate amongst the strike teams as to what was the toughest: the back-wrenching removal of appliances and hefty 1950s cast-iron tubs, the “swamping” of sawed-down tree trunks, or the clearing of putrid fridges whose cocktail concoctions consisted of three-week food rot and storm surge seawater. The work made one sweat and often tested gag reflexes. Yet it’s what every Greyshirt had eagerly signed up for. The toil, sweat, and even tears at times were worth it to get those overwhelmed Floridians back on their feet. All that work and all that assistance came at no cost to these Americans in need: It was all provided by the volunteered time and grit of the Greyshirts.

In addition to the philanthropic satisfaction of helping others, there is a certain sort of therapy for some veterans suffering the effects of PTSD, whether it’s in the act of serving again or in the stories witnessed during an Op that reach deep into heart and soul. Some stories become evident during a site survey, like when a volunteer team finds they can help fix the home of a woman who had survived multiple hurricanes and the murder of her own son. 

Other stories emerge as a strike team works, like that of the elderly couple on Matlacha whose large home had been ravaged by storm surge waters. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the husband, attempting his own storm recovery, suffered multiple lacerations, which resulted in his being hospitalized for septic shock. It was a story Greyshirts heard about while working on a neighbor’s house, and soon multiple strike teams had mobilized to muck out the mangled debris from that elderly couple’s house. That small action allowed the couple to focus on the man’s recovery in the hospital, knowing that their home recovery would be ready when they returned.

Man pulls sled with equipment past hurricane debris.
Greyshirts, surrounded by Hurricane Ian debris, prepare to start work on a home in Florida. Photo by Jason Whitman.

Elsewhere on the devastated isle of Matlacha, positioned between Pine Island and the mainland, another set of teams was headed to the home of a Marine Corps veteran and his wife. As Ian had approached a few weeks prior, the couple, with few alternative options and little time to prepare, had decided to try to ride out the storm. Water had rushed into their home. When the Coast Guard arrived to save them, they found him drifting on a mattress and her clutching to its side and floating in the water, both badly shaken but feeling blessed to be alive and rescued. The couple had been able to save their dog, but there was no sign of their beloved cat. 

As Team Rubicon teams performed the extensive muck-out at the Marine Corps veteran’s home, they uncovered military memorabilia and began setting aside all that could be salvaged. Then, while working in a mud- and debris-filled corner of the house, they found one scared, sand-caked, but miraculously alive kitty. She gave her Team Rubicon rescuers some love scratches as they secured her. 

When the Marine returned and strike team Echo took him on the final walk-through, he was greeted not only with a cleaned-out home but also with military photos, mementos from his time in the Corps, and his most prized Marine veteran hat, which he donned on the spot. “Still fits. Semper Fi, my friends,” he said proudly, and maybe a bit tearfully, as the strike team departed that day.

Toward the end of that week, Fort Myers Beach—part of Hurricane Ian’s ground-zero devastation—was opened to homeowners and to disaster relief organizations like Team Rubicon. As site survey teams drove across the north end of Estero Island, they found apocalyptic scenes: twisted trees, sand dunes piled 12 feet high along roads like plowed tropical snowdrifts, and houses scoured clean from foundations. Boats were stacked in backyards miles from the coast, as if a child had tossed their favorite toys in places clearly not meant for them. 

At one beachfront location along Estero Boulevard, the main road meandering along the edge of the island, a Greyshirt made a brief stop by her own family’s home to survey the damage. It was hard to imagine that the first floor had ever been a living space: it had been stripped of all walls, furniture, and anything standing except for sturdy concrete pilings. Portions of the main floor had buckled under the weight of the collapsed roof. 

What the hurricane did not touch was nearly as mesmerizing as what it did: On the ground, 30 feet from the house, was a ceramic sculpture, in shattered pieces, but like a finished puzzle, the obvious shape of a fish still visible. 

“Oh wow, my mom used to have that hanging in our kitchen window,” the Greyshirt reminisced. Elsewhere, amongst broken pottery, the team found dozens of intact dinner bowls and plates seemingly ready for the family’s next meal. One of the more amusing sights was a closet tucked in the back of the house. The outside wall had been peeled away by the 145-mph winds, yet the shirts remained carefully hung by their owner on hangers above a collection of neatly stacked DVD seasons of hit shows 24 and The Sopranos. “How funny. I can’t believe my dad’s closet made it through the storm,” she remarked in awe with a smirk. 

Later, back at the FOB, strike teams finished up the week cleaning equipment, performing logistics checks, and preparing the center for the next wave of Greyshirts to swoop in. Some shared stories of the families they helped. Others in a hands-on sawyer class picked up the last freshly-cut limbs from around the damaged Lake Kennedy Senior Center grounds. 

And, there was the Greyshirt known only as “I AM,” the volunteer who seemed to inspire other Greyshirts the most that week, quietly cleaning two American flags that his team had found during a muck-out earlier in the day. As the setting sun sparkled through the glistening water drops, there was something fitting about the moment, where veteran and non-veteran alike stood quietly and watched Old Glory also restored to its splendor.

Man washing American Flag.
Greyshirt “I AM” cleans a flag found among Hurricane Ian debris. Photo by Jason Whitman.
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