Stepping Into an Arena Close to Home

Melissa Banks

A Greyshirt reflects on her first deployment and responding to the December tornadoes in Kentucky.

I was registered with Team Rubicon for well over a year before I committed to my first operation. As a prior service member in a demanding new civilian job, I had a lot of concerns about joining an organization that I knew very little about. Was this the best use of my limited time off? Would I be making an impact on the people and areas we set out to serve? Who would I be serving with? What would the culture be? Would I be safe?

When a tornado landed on December 10, 2021, leaving a 200-plus-mile path of destruction that ended in my own home state of Kentucky, I decided to put all my questions aside and embrace the Greyshirt motto of Get Sh*t Done. I was mobilized for seven days to Dawson Springs, KY in support of Operation Unbridled Spirit. From my first points of interaction with Team Rubicon Mobilization and the crew who staffed an Ask Me Anything About Deployment call, I began to understand there was something special about the organization. I was made to feel supported, safe, and informed, which made going into my very first op infinitely less intimidating.

Greyshirt Melissa Banks.

On my first day on the ground for Team Rubicon, I was welcomed to the Forward Operating Base (FOB) where a very busy Command and General Staff (C&G) ensured that I got a thorough onboarding, had time to get settled, and then took me out to the field to connect me with a team. I was joining a wave of folks who had already been working together for several days, but they welcomed me with open arms and immediately put me to work. I was impressed by the diversity of the field team. In the seven days I served, I worked with folks ranging in age from late 20s to mid-70s. I cleaned up debris for an all-female saw team. I shared a room with folks from California to New Hampshire and many states in between. As the days passed and I got to know more about my teammates, I realized I was hauling away branches and tarping roofs with a part-time DJ, an IT technician, a college administrator, a helicopter pilot, and a former Broadway singer. There was never a shortage of interesting stories to share as we all tried to wrap our minds and hearts around the mission.

I have served on tornado operations through my prior service as a medical technician in the Air National Guard. I have seen the power of a tornado first hand. It still doesn’t prepare you for the shocking devastation that you see in any new disaster zone. In the case of Dawson Springs and the surrounding areas we served, entire neighborhoods were just gone. In some cases, our team arrived at addresses where there was zero indication that a home had ever stood on the property. We spoke with families who experienced unfathomable losses; people they loved, all their possessions, beloved pets, vehicles, the tools they used to make a living. Everything gone in just a few fateful seconds. It was heartbreaking. I don’t know that I would have been able to navigate so much loss and grief without the culture of Team Rubicon. Every person in leadership made a point of encouraging us to share our stories at the end of the day. They reminded us that our mission isn’t limited to helping communities rebuild physical structures, but also to start healing the emotional wounds left by disasters. We were urged to offer a shoulder to cry on and to also accept the shoulders of our Team Rubicon teammates when we as responders started to feel the weight of the work.

A Team Rubicon chainsaw crew in Dawson Springs, KY.

One of the things that impressed me the most about Team Rubicon is the culture of learning. No matter what team I was assigned to, who I worked with, or how the mission changed over time, my teammates, strike team leaders, and C&G were constantly finding opportunities to help me grow my skill set, and encouraging me to share my skills with others. I witnessed countless situations where more experienced saw operators, logistics staff, or seasoned volunteers took others under their wings to help expand the knowledge base of the team. I watched those same people ask for advice and input from volunteers who had only been on the job for two days. The lack of ego combined with a passion for service is something that I have never experienced with any other organization I have worked for. It was an extraordinary experience that I know is going to have an impact both for the people we served and the people who served for many years to come.

As soon as I got home, I hopped online to see what Team Rubicon opportunities I can take part in next. My phone has been buzzing with texts and friend requests from folks I met on my operation. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to serve.

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