Rooftop Repasts

Julie H. Case

A Clay Hunt Fellow raises the flag, and spirits, at Florida Rebuild.

Don’t ask Ron Najarro about wielding a hammer. Don’t ask him about the roofs the Greyshirts are nailing on, or the floorboards Elliott Tucker and team are installing throughout Collier County. Ask him what to eat instead. And then ask him where.

Najarro may have a passion for military service, and for serving post military, but he’s also a gallivanting gourmand. He knows the best Mexican food in town; the destination hole-in-the-wall Cuban spot in Fort Meyers, and where to find a farmer’s market full of vibrant poblano chiles, achingly sweet strawberries, and stringy queso fresco. The last time he was in Miami, he managed to wangle an invite to a secretive pop-up restaurant located in someone’s backyard.

Food has become part of how Najarro serves both the Team Rubicon volunteers he organizes and oversees and veterans alike, too.

Najarro himself did multiple tours in Iraq during his time in infantry for the US Marine Corps from 2003 until 2011. It wasn’t until after the service that his love for food led him to culinary school in Texas. He worked the restaurant circuit—serving, bussing, and cooking. But bouncing around—self sabotage—was how Najarro lived his PTSD. Whenever things started going well for him, whether that was the moment he got on the management tract at a restaurant or moved off the prep and into the line, he’d knock the ladder out from under himself. He’d leave a job paying $16 an hour to something entry level; he’d bounce from restaurant to restaurant.

Then, back in 2016 Najarro decided he wanted to reenlist. He met with recruiters from virtually every branch, but a PTSD diagnoses kept getting him turned down. Finally, he met with the Army who said they’d take him—provided he get in shape first. So, Najarro hit it hard, dropping a full 90 pounds over the course of a year. He gave notice at Wild Wings, where he’d risen into a management position, and prepared for another tour. And then, as he was practically kissing his family goodbye, the Army changed its mind: more disappointment, this time in the form of a last-minute rejection for service.

Najarro was dumbstruck. He couldn’t go back to the job he’d quit; he couldn’t think of starting over. On a whim, he applied for a Team Rubicon Clay Hunt Fellowship and tried to move on with his life. He got the acceptance months later, in mid-2018, while out to dinner with his family. Today, he’s Team Rubicon’s volunteer coordinator in Florida, where they’re currently rebuilding houses damaged by Hurricane Irma.

USMC veteran and current Clay Hunt Fellow Ron Najarro coordinates any volunteers who want to earn their shirt at Florida Rebuild.

“A lot of doors closed, but one opened,” says Najarro of that moment.

Now in Florida, Najarro’s idea of service centers around the Greyshirts, and often around food. He’s there to raise the beer flag at the end of every day. On Wednesdays, he takes the team to his favorite sit-down Mexican restaurant. Walking through that farmer’s market, he makes a note to return and buy a five-pound bag of tangerines for the team. And, he spearheaded the launch of Run as One in Collier County—the annual 5k held across the country that brings together Team Rubicon members, the community, veterans and veteran supporters for team building in remembrance to USMC veteran and TR member (and CHFP’s namesake) Clay Hunt.

On April 13, in a Florida park, there was music pumping, about 40 runners running, and Najarro behind a giant sandwich platter which, making sure everyone was well fed. Maybe some people think he’s going a bit overboard, but according to Najarro, he’s just doing his job. And, making sure the people he serves are sated along the way.

Read More Stories