Former Marine Marc Hittle was in South Carolina not long after catastrophic flooding struck the coast in October 2015. Working with a team of volunteers sporting gray Team Rubicon T-shirts, Hittle recalls being inside a home that was almost completely destroyed, helping a heartbroken family navigate the wreckage.
Hittle and his team mucked out the house, tearing down drywall and leaving only the studs. They moved wet carpets and disposed of waterlogged clothing — everything had to go. Then, as he was combing through a soggy room, something unexpected caught his eye. It was damp and worn, but there was the homeowners' marriage certificate.
When he presented it to the couple, they were speechless.
"A lot of the time Team Rubicon comes in on the worst day in people's lives," Hittle said, remembering the grief he saw that day. "Team Rubicon comes in and makes that moment better, even if it's just a little better, when people thought they were at the bottom. And that's the best thing we can do."
Hittle is one of thousands of veterans who have returned to civilian life and joined Team Rubicon — a nonprofit group that can rapidly deploy teams for disaster response missions around the world. Operating with the agility of a non-governmental organization, Team Rubicon often has some of the first boots on the ground when a disaster strikes.
With operations now spanning the globe, there are few recent calamities that Team Rubicon hasn't touched: It has provided medical care to refugees in Greece, launched a recovery in Louisiana after last year's devastating floods, cleared debris after tornadoes in Oklahoma and earthquakes in Nepal. The group offers aid that includes medical and dental care and training, water and sanitary health, debris removal and disaster management.
The impact that Team Rubicon can have on disaster zones is immeasurable. But the group's work also has a direct impact on those veterans doing the work, giving them a renewed sense of purpose, as many still are trying to transition to civilian life after leaving the military.
Hittle is the face of a standard Team Rubicon volunteer: He had joined the Marine Corps for the challenge and to follow family tradition. It wasn't until 10 years after leaving and finishing school that he slowed down enough to realize something was missing from his life.
"I was a Marine," Hittle said in a recent interview. "You can go across the world and run into a Marine and you're still a brother and sister to them." That had fallen by the wayside when he got out of the Corps. "I realized that I was missing that sense of purpose, the sense of accomplishment, and fulfilling that drive I had to succeed."
Team Rubicon can help clear a house that was just blown off the foundation by a tornado, or a family whose home and all belongings are under 8-feet of floodwater, saving the family and the community thousands of dollars.
Volunteers can move a heavy cast iron tub, and save that for the homeowner. That pride in making a concrete difference for others, Hittle said, gave him an awareness of a new mission.
Within the first hour of his first Team Rubicon service project, he was sold.
"I realized that's where I needed to be."
Boots back on the ground
Marine scout sniper Jake Wood deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, then left the Corps in 2009. He moved to California and was on track to success and an MBA, but was also "deathly afraid of a life void of purpose."
Wood's life changed one day when he was sitting on his couch and saw news reports about a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. The seismic tremors shook the tiny Caribbean island country — killing more than 200,000 people and leaving the already-poor nation in ruins.
Wood instinctively felt he had to go, and a few days later he and a handful of other vets found their way to Haiti and started assessing the situation on the ground.
During one of the first days in Port-au-Prince, Wood was working in a tent camp, cleaning the leg of a young Haitian boy who had injured his leg on exposed rebar. While Wood was sitting there, he had a flashback to 18 months earlier, when he had treated a young boy in Afghanistan who had been shot through the leg by the Taliban.
"As Marines, I felt like we had been given a lot of the tools to help these people," he recently told Marine Corps Times. "I realized there was so much more we could do out of uniform, as well as in uniform, to help people."
When the group came home, Wood thought about how applicable the skills and experiences learned in the military — everything from leadership, to counterinsurgency principles, to work ethic — were for disaster response, and how they had helped in Haiti. And Team Rubicon was born.
"There's no job in a disaster that the military didn't train someone for in a [military career field]. It blows my mind that no one has thought to repurpose those skills before for disaster response" on a large-scale, Wood said.
The secondary purpose of Team Rubicon became clear to Wood only later. Another former Marine sniper and close friend, Clay Hunt, who joined Wood on the initial trip to Haiti, committed suicide in 2011 after a struggle with post-traumatic stress and depression.
It was sobering for Wood, and also reinforced how important purpose and a strong community is for vets.
The issue of a healthy transition out of the military often is complicated, Wood said.
"While people like to talk about jobs, health care and access to housing, we often gloss over other human needs like purpose and community," he said. "If we can address those, I feel like veterans are so much more capable of navigating their own transition."
Vets to the rescue
At first glance, Team Rubicon looks almost like a ragtag volunteer firefighter organization of sorts: Well-trained men and women, with day jobs, ready to respond to a call. But they are now organized on a global scale, with U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles and global branch worldwide.
More than 70 percent of volunteers are vets, men and women from all branches of service — the rest are EMS, first responders and a group they call "kick-ass civilians." Just seven years after the earthquake in Haiti, Team Rubicon now boasts about 45,000 volunteers.
Volunteers can be involved as much or as little as they'd like. They can go overseas for a one-week mission that fits with their work schedule, or do a weekend service project close to home.
After catastrophic flooding in Columbia, South Carolina, in October 2016, Team Rubicon volunteers deployed to help local first responders, as well as provide damage assessments and debris removal.
Photo Credit: Kirk Jackson/Team Rubicon
The group follows the Federal Emergency Management Agency regional model, and is broken up into two divisions and ten regions across the United States. Recently the organization has started pairing local volunteers with city emergency responders. The three- to five-year strategy is to build out the local capacity in cities, Wood said, creating "centers of gravity." Firefighters and police will know the Team Rubicon volunteers in their region and call on them when they need assistance.
All Team Rubicon volunteers are trained, and have opportunities for additional training in things like operating chainsaws and heavy equipment continually. The nonprofit pairs with ASIST — Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training — to provide emotional health response for volunteers.
Team Rubicon has even worked alongside the Corps before, coordinating mutual aid with a Marine expeditionary unit in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. Team Rubicon sent about 50 health care providers, and another roughly 40 volunteers, to support the Philippines medically.
The nonprofit is funded by corporate support as well as individual giving. They have a partnership with Southwest Airlines, which gives vouchers to fly volunteers to far-away disaster zones.
Yet its ties to the military are uniquely strong, with an advisory board including former Marine Commandant Gen. James T. Conway, retired Army Gen. Stanley McChyrstal and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus.
The military's top officer, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke last year at a Team Rubicon leadership conference and said he plans to sign up as a volunteer once he retires from active duty, Wood said.
Wood said Dunford told the group: "Save me a chainsaw."
David Burke formerly was a logistics officer in the Corps. The first time he got out of the service he went to work at Amazon. But that was short-lived. He missed the sense of purpose tied to a mission. So he joined the Marines again for a while before finally returning to civilian life for good.
Burke said the three things that are hardest to replicate after the military are purpose, community and a shared sense of identity.
"When you transition from the military to the civilian world, most jobs don't include those things," said Burke, who now works as the vice president of programs and field operations for Team Rubicon.
But Team Rubicon volunteers often find these things innately: They are part of a team and a community, and one with a tie to a larger mission. Even something as simple as the gray T-shirt is important as a unifying identity.
"What we see when we get volunteers out in the field is an opportunity to have an immediate understanding of purpose," Burke said. "When you drive into a disaster zone you can tell you have an opportunity to have an impact."
Andrea Scott is the managing editor of Marine Corps Times. On Twitter: @_andreascott.