Hurricane Ian struck Florida’s western coast in 2022 with winds and waves strong enough to collapse buildings, wash trucks away, and flood entire towns. In Lee County, the communities of Fort Myers Beach and Matlacha were some of the hardest hit, with entire neighborhoods temporarily swallowed by storm surges of between 12 and 15 feet. Matlacha was cut off from the mainland when the storm collapsed the only bridge into town while more than a dozen people died in Fort Myers Beach.
When Team Rubicon volunteers—or Greyshirts—made it into those ravaged communities, they found no shortage of homeowners in need. Among them were two U.S. Marine Corps retirees, Vietnam War-era veterans enjoying their golden years along the beautiful Gulf Coast of the Sunshine State. Two Greyshirt strike teams, each composed mostly of military veterans, had the honor of finding their brothers in uniform in need—and doing whatever they could to help make them whole.
Hoisting the Colors Brings Veterans Serving to a Veteran’s Door
When 84-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran John “Jay” Gray returned to Fort Myers Beach after Hurricane Ian, he didn’t know what to do or where to start. The storm had decimated the coastal town and killed 14 of Gray’s neighbors. Ian had downed trees and smashed boats—and seemingly deposited it all on Gray’s yard. Gray’s property was basically inaccessible, and the house itself a health hazard.
The whole neighborhood was essentially razed. What remained was an indistinguishable collection of homes missing walls and doors, destroyed cars, upside-down boats, and what seemed like every appliance, machine, and personal item from every house on the street. The garage at the house next door was scrawled with a spray-painted threat for looters.
While sifting through the refuse around his home—trying to separate what the storm had brought to his property from what it had taken out of his home—Gray found his old U.S. Marine Corps flag intact. His flagpole had collapsed however, so he hung his Marine colors from some debris facing what remained of his street.
“It feels like I’ve been shot at,” said Gray.
He looked it, too. After days of trying to clear up his property alone, he was not merely haggard but also wounded. A trickle of cracked blood crusted his leg like a dried-up stream as he went back and forth between his house and the street, carrying what he could.
When Greyshirts en route to a job rolled up Gray’s street, there were one Army and three Marine veterans serving on the strike team. When the veteran volunteers saw the crimson Marine flag hanging in the rubble, they knew they had to stop.
“This is the house,” Greyshirt and Marine veteran Kevin Glaser recalled saying. “It wasn’t where we were sent, but it definitely was where we were supposed to be.”
The first thing they did, Glaser said, was convince Gray to get his leg treated. Persuading an old warrior to get assistance was the first challenge but not the last. Every day, they had to coax him into actually taking a break and letting them take over. They stayed at Gray’s property for half a week, lifting ruined boats, hot tubs, doors, furniture, and much more random detritus from his drenched and beaten home.
“They did things that I can’t do,” said Gray. “Physically and emotionally. My Marine brothers.”
One of the most important tasks for the team on that first day was to raise Gray’s flagpole. They traipsed around the mounds of wreckage, carefully lifting the pole high above the street, the Marine Corps flag, right beneath the American flag, swaying gently in the hot Florida breeze as Gray saluted, tears in his eyes. For several more days, the Greyshirts mucked and sawed and swamped amidst oppressive heat and filth and destruction—grateful for the opportunity.
“We’re here to serve. That’s what wearing the grey shirt means,” said Marine veteran and Greyshirt Joe Maki. “But it does kind of mean a little more that we can help a Marine like Gray in a situation like this.”
Building Ramps Builds Bridges for Veterans Serving a Veteran
William and Veronica Miller had lived in their quaint Matlacha bungalow for 29 years in 2022. They had weathered other storms. And because Ian was not going to be the first hurricane they’d lived through, they thought they were prepared. Besides, in the days leading up to landfall, forecasts shifted the center of the track north to Florida’s Big Bend, then hovered it over Tampa Bay. But, when Ian made a last-minute turn from its predicted path, it struck Matlacha unexpectedly and the Millers found themselves unprepared for the ferocity of the storm or for the havoc it would wreak on their community.
“It was a very bad storm,” said Veronica. “We didn’t realize how bad it was going to be until that morning, and by then it was too late to leave.”
Veronica, in a wheelchair since birth, and William, a U.S. Marine Vietnam War-era veteran, huddled together as Ian lashed out at their seaside community, driving more than 3 feet of water into their home. “It felt really uncomfortable with the water rising under my wheelchair,” said Veronica. “So, we were all of us—dog and cat and husband—on the bed until the water reached the height of the bed. And I just waited for the water to go down.”
After the storm had passed, the Millers still couldn’t evacuate; there was just no way out of their street. In fact, the Millers couldn’t even leave their house.
Debris blocked their front door. The windows were smashed in, but the rubble strewn fully around the house made egress difficult, even for someone not in a wheelchair. They had to be airlifted out by the Coast Guard. “We got a helicopter ride, all of us. Even my wheelchair,” said Veronica, “It was scary.”
It was days before they could return home; the sole bridge to town had to be fixed first, and then their street had to be cleared enough for a vehicle to drive through it. When they did finally make it back to what was left of their home, they had no idea how two retirees—one in a wheelchair—would be able to take stock of the damage, let alone begin repairs. They heard about Team Rubicon on TV and called the number, not expecting much. But then they got a call back. And then the first Greyshirts arrived.
Among them was strike team leader Greg Smith, a retired U.S. Army veteran. On his strike team were several U.S. and Israeli military veterans, all eager to be serving veterans and their families in need.
“Veronica, she was just so impressive,” said Smith, “to face all that she’s gone through in life and remain so dedicated to her husband and keep her sense of humor.”
The damage the Greyshirts encountered at the Miller’s was intense: several inches of muck covered every room, and most of their belongings were ruined. The wheelchair ramp was damaged. Multiple strike teams spent nearly a week at the Millers. They mucked out the whole home, saving as much as they could, and also rebuilt the wheelchair ramp.
“This was satisfying work,” Smith said. “Building the ramp for Veronica, serving a Vietnam veteran in this way; we’re all proud of what we did here.”
“We couldn’t have done this without Team Rubicon,” said Veronica. “Everyone I’ve met from TR has been wonderful. And they’re thanking me for letting them help us. I’m kind of speechless about it because it’s just so meaningful.”
Then, she confessed her normally reserved husband had been affected, too.
“William, he cried a little bit. The idea, I think, of other veterans coming together to help us in this way…”