Here Come the Reinforcements

Joanna Manning

Vaccinated and free to serve again, formerly at-risk disaster relief volunteers get back to heavy lifting.

When disaster strikes, Team Rubicon volunteers rush in to be of service; standing down is not in their nature. But, when COVID-19 hit, that’s exactly what Greyshirts over the age of 65 were expected to do. In March of 2020, in accordance with CDC guidelines, Team Rubicon instituted the first-of-its-kind restriction on volunteers: Greyshirts age 65 and up would not be allowed to deploy until the pandemic was over or under control. The risk to their health was just too great.

Greyshirts of retirement age are some of Team Rubicon’s most active and valued members. Of all volunteers who have deployed five or more times, 11% are 65 or older. In 2020, the coronavirus restrictions meant Team Rubicon missed out on the chance to deploy more than 4,000 Greyshirts, including some of Team Rubicon’s most reliable: the roughly 400 Greyshirts who typically deploy four times a year, according to Mobilization Manager Brent Slough. That had an impact at the core level, too.

A Team Rubicon volunteer removes debris after a wildfire in California.

“A lot of those folks who are retired, who have the availability, and who have the skills, knowledge, and attributes we need are among our most important members, so there’s no doubt we saw direct impact,” said Team Rubicon Deputy Director of Field Leadership, Nick Mrzlak.

Those 65 and older comprise a significant portion of Team Rubicon’s senior instructors, and senior and most experienced heavy equipment operators and sawyers. Their absence in 2020 impacted the field bench. “Losing those folks, including those people who have just life experience on top of Team Rubicon experience, not only immediately impacted our capacity to operate on core operations, but it also limited our ability to build capacity,” explained Mrzlak. “So many of them are the instructors; so many of them are the mentors for folks out there.”

While their absence on ops has been felt acutely, no one has felt the loss more deeply than the Greyshirts themselves. 

Until last month, Dr. James Orsini was one such Greyshirt. At 74, the retired dentist had deployed on multiple operations with Team Rubicon prior to the pandemic. Orsini has been active in Team Rubicon since 2018, when he deployed to Wilmington, NC, after Hurricane Florence. He mucked out houses. He got dirty. He made friends. “It was a great experience,” said Orsini. He went on to get his sawyer certification and later became a heavy equipment operator, always ready and willing to lend a hand in a disaster. Then COVID-19 ground that all to a halt. 

A Team Rubicon volunteer helps citizens in Wilmington, NC after Hurricane Florence.

A U.S. Navy dentist of 38 years with a combat tour in Iraq under his belt, Orsini is accustomed to doing hard work under challenging circumstances. Still, he followed the order to stand down. It was difficult. “Seeing all of your friends continue to deploy is tough,” he said. “I felt like I was missing out.”

While he was not working with Team Rubicon during 2020, he was still teaching dentistry as an adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. His role there—in addition to his age—qualified him for early access to the vaccine. His vaccine course was uncomplicated, and after the two-week waiting period following his second shot, he was cleared to return to the field in January. 

Soon Orsini was back in the field, and at the controls of a 22-ton excavator on an operation in Victoria County, TX, to further clean up devastation left by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Team Rubicon had partnered with the Victoria Long Term Recovery Group to demolish several remaining homes so that new, sturdier structures could be built.

“It was a lot of fun getting back to work,” Orsini said, though he did note that his team was swarmed by honeybees while they were there. No one was hurt, and everyone other than the bees appreciated Orsini’s return.

“[Deploying] brings back all the reasons I joined Team Rubicon. It’s not about winning, it’s about helping others get back up when disaster knocks them down, developing friendships, being part of something larger than yourself. You miss that when you’re away from it—just like leaving the military.”

Vaccinated and ready to deploy.

Now that he’s free to serve again, Dr. Orsini has his heart set on deploying internationally as part of a medical team with Team Rubicon, ideally doing dentistry. Team Rubicon has yet to deploy a dentist, but Dr. Orsini is trying to change that. “I put in a word any time I get a chance,” he said with a laugh. But he said he is willing to put his decade of experience as an EMT to use if dentistry isn’t in high demand.  

“The work at Team Rubicon is very fulfilling. When you’re retired, you’re always looking for something to do,” he said. “I’m still pretty active, so I’m trying to pursue the more active part of helping out while I can.”

Orsini is just the beginning. As more and more Greyshirts over age 65 get vaccinated, Team Rubicon expects to see a major lift in the field. 

“We anticipate this being a busy disaster season, and having the heavy equipment operators, having the sawyers out there, having them build capacity is going to be critical,” says Mrzlak. That’s especially true given the amount of time the remaining volunteers—Greyshirts not considered high-risk—spent in the field in 2020. “It’s basically been non-stop for a year now, and we’re wearing out our volunteers. To open up an extra say 30% of our volunteer population is going to be huge for us to be successful out there.” 

A Greyshirt assists with debris removal after a wildfire.
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