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Operation: Tough Town – Wakefield residents get help from veterans on a mission

Ally Karsyn

Ally Karsyn is a journalist for the Sioux City Journal.

The Sioux City Journal

WAKEFIELD, Neb. | Sixty years ago, a tornado ripped through rural Thurston County, destroying the country school and church and the chimney of Barbara Stanton’s childhood home. She was 5.

The farm that once belonged to her parents and grandparents got hit again. This time was worse.

Caught in the ruinous path of the twin tornadoes that touched down in northeast Nebraska two weeks ago, the modular home Stanton and her husband Joe built in 1978 has a hole in the kitchen. Exposed beams and insulation hang from the ceiling. The cabinets are warped and cracks have formed in the walls nearby. Only a cement slab remains where they had a four-car garage.

“At least I’m going to be able to come back… someday,” she said Thursday afternoon.

Outside, military veterans cleared downed trees and devised a plan to extricate an upside-down outbuilding from the grove.

The members of Team Rubicon mobilized to aid residents in rural Wakefield the day after the tornado, immediately helping with volunteer management, damage assessment and debris removal.

The organization, which unites the skills and experience of military veterans with first responders, has a twofold mission: disaster relief and veterans integration. Its latest response was Operation: Tough Town, designed to help the victims of the Nebraska tornadoes.

Victoria Young, of Marion, Iowa, joined the task force eight months ago after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve been searching for a home for a really long time,” she said. “Finding Team Rubicon felt like I was finally coming home.”

Her first tour of duty four years ago left a painful impression.

Ever since Iraq, she’s struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and panic attacks, along with a shoulder injury. She tried to ignore the symptoms of PTSD because of its stigma. She finally got diagnosed. Team Rubicon has been her support system, her shelter from the storm.

“No matter where I am, I can walk into this group of people and I can feel like they get me. They get what I’ve been through, and they’re here to take care of me,” Young said.

Many of the members have found a renewed sense of purpose through continued community service.

As part of Operation: Tough Town, they set up camp at the Wakefield Fire Department, where more volunteers filtered in each day.

After helping more than 50 homeowners, the team convened there on Thursday for lunch and reassignment. Thankful townspeople kept them well-fed with five large pans of lasagna.

Half of each day’s work was done in the festering heat and humidity. Nate Reeves, of Harrington, Kan., supervised operations out in the field, at times walking through rows of beans and corn and picking up wreckage.

The weirdest thing he found was a check from 1966 made out to Coast to Coast, a defunct hardware store.

He’d been there for a week, he said, sleeping on a cot and waking each day to do more manual labor. The Army veteran had a bandaged wrist — a twisted piece of sheet metal got away from him.

“When you’re doing something bigger than yourself, you tend to forget about the discomforts,” he said.

That afternoon, the volunteers returned to Barbara and Joe Stanton’s acreage and fired up chainsaws to cut away broken trees.

Driving the gravel roads out to their home, the quiet countryside is dotted with splintered trees, mangled metal and leveled houses.

Neighbors to the north and south lost so much. The Stantons are waiting to see if their home is structurally sound and temporarily are living in an apartment for senior citizens in Wakefield.

Barbara expects they’ll be displaced for at least three months but hopes to move back to the homestead that’s surrounded by family. Four of her cousins live within a mile of the place. Their homes were spared.

As for Operation: Tough Town, members of Team Rubicon will start demobilizing Monday, having served their mission.