Twisted Debris and Tough Exteriors Can’t Hide True Treasures

Becca Williams

A single mom reflects on her first disaster relief operation—Team Rubicon’s response to the December tornadoes—and uncovering more than expected.

I joined Team Rubicon in 2019, but it wouldn’t be until tornadoes left hundreds of miles of destruction in my own state that I’d have the chance to serve. I’m a civilian, but veteran-focused organizations have always pulled at my heartstrings, and Team Rubicon’s disaster response focus was a perfect ​complement to my full-time emergency management work. And, it provides an opportunity to get out from behind my computer. 

I wanted to serve on Operation Unbridled Spirit—Team Rubicon’s response to the December tornadoes—to do good in my own community. I’m a single mom, and we don’t live very far from where Team Rubicon was serving. When the tornadoes hit in Kentucky on December 11 and 12, one came through Marion County, where we live, damaging homes and barns. It also came through nearby Taylor County, destroying homes on its path toward us. My daughter and I took shelter in a closet for nearly an hour watching its path on the news on our phones.

Not only did I want to do good in my own community though, I also wanted to be a good role model for my daughter. 

Becca Williams moves debris after the December tornadoes. Photo by Naoto Nakamura.

It’s difficult to get time off work and to line up childcare on relatively short notice in order to deploy. Yet when everything lined up to enable me to spend the end of my daughter’s winter break in western Kentucky, I knew it was where I needed to be—not only to help people in my own state, but also to set an example for my child about priorities and making time to make an impact. 

So, I deployed with Team Rubicon to the Bowling Green area, where multiple twisters had touched down—including one EF-2 and two EF-3 tornadoes—leaving miles of destruction. Everywhere around us was loss and devastation. Not only did we personally know people who were affected, it was at the forefront every time you turned on the TV. My heart hurt for every home, every family member, every pet lost. Actually arriving in Bowling Green on my way to the forward operating base—or FOB—I literally gasped at my first sight of the extensive damage. Nothing prepares you for arriving in a disaster-affected community. The piles of rubble everywhere waiting for pickup were massive. 

Sometimes the best way to deal with that pain is to get up and do hard work with good people. For me, being a Greyshirt means making a difference. It’s about leaving the world better than you found it. It’s about doing good and having an amplified impact in your own community. On my own, my capabilities are limited. But as a Greyshirt, suddenly I’m part of a team and we have the power to literally change lives. 

The area around one of the homes we worked at had once been filled with giant elm trees. The homeowner said the trees were actually the reason they bought the house. The tornado, however, tore them all down. It was a big job and it took two teams working the same site to get it all done. Together, we moved about 13,000 cubic feet of debris that day, and the heavy equipment operators came in toward the end to clear out the large lower trunks and root balls. We ended up working later than usual, but no one wanted to leave until we were finished. The owner was amazed and said he had been afraid it would take him until summer to get everything cleared out on his own. He was excited for his two young daughters to come back home and see the improvement because they had been asking about all the brush and debris. 

The day after New Year’s we had a work order at a Navy veteran’s home. He and his wife had been at home in bed during the storm and large wooden debris was blown through their windows and door. The house sustained minimal damage but the backyard and large garden area were covered in fallen cedar trees. That homeowner and veteran worked side-by-side with us for hours in the rain, then sleet and snow, clearing away brush and separating household debris for removal. He said he had grown up on a farm in Franklin County, and “if one person is working that means we’re all working.” A few hours into the job he actually started a fire for us to take breaks and get warm or to dry wet hands and gloves. He was so happy we were there and his smile was absolutely contagious. 

One of the other Greyshirts I served alongside on this operation is a Marine Corps veteran and Purple Heart recipient, and I know he has overcome much in life. Working alongside him was, for me, a humbling experience. He pretended to be a gruff old grunt, but that tough exterior couldn’t hide his golden heart. Between hauling just as much, if not more, debris as anyone else he made sure the team was eating, staying hydrated, and equipped with enough layers to stay warm in the snow and mud. I feel honored to have had the chance to meet him during our work in Bowling Green.

Becca Williams walks past a Team Rubicon work site in Kentucky. Photo by Naoto Nakamura.
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