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Traveling with a Mission

There’s travel for pleasure, and travel for necessity. Here a Los Angeles non-profit handles the latter, leveraging veterans for disaster work.

When he arrived in the small desert town late last year, Eric Larson immediately took stock of the mangled structures, abandoned vehicles and displaced people. Standing in uniform, alongside a team of men and women armed with various tools, Eric couldn’t shake the familiar call of duty he felt when he was deployed with the military in Afghanistan. This time, Eric was carrying a shovel, wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “Team Rubicon” and surveying the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in the California town of Niland.


Following a storied military career serving with NATO and later with the U.S. Air Force, Eric retired in 2018 at the age of 44 and settled in Orcutt. It didn’t take long before he missed the brotherhood of his fellow airmen and the discipline required to complete a mission.

 

“I missed it more than I thought I would,” Eric says. “I’m a horrible retiree.”

After hearing about a volunteer program that mobilizes veterans for disaster response work, Eric decided to sign up for the Los Angeles-based non-profit Team Rubicon.

Eric helps direct traffic at a mass vaccination site in Fontana. Photos courtesy of Team Rubicon/DAVIS
Team Rubicon Greyshirts work together to clear debris after a fire in Niland, California in August 2020. Photo courtesy of Team Rubicon.
A waiting team, off to support wildfire response efforts.
Team Rubicon Greyshirts clear debris after 2020’s fire in Niland.

“Military life is all about camaraderie,” Eric says. “People coming together and getting stuff done.”

That’s exactly what he found in Team Rubicon, which now boasts 143,000 volunteers nationwide who are active in 42 ongoing operations across the U.S. Within hours of a natural disaster or emergency, Team Rubicon volunteers are mobilized and travel by land or sky to arrive at the embattled destination. The nature of this work gives volunteers the opportunity to see a wide breadth of the U.S., albeit in a much different way than the average tourist.

“We went to Texas after Hurricane Harvey, Florida after Hurricane Irma and more recently, we set up COVID-19 vaccination sites in Los Angeles and North Carolina,” says Team Rubicon CEO Arthur delaCruz, who served 22 years in the Navy.

Team Rubicon was co-founded in 2010 by veteran Jake Wood who couldn’t find any organization that would accept him as a volunteer in Haiti after an earthquake killed 800 people and crippled infrastructure. Though Team Rubicon now focuses solely on domestic emergencies, the types of disaster and degree of destruction the organization responds to are wide ranging and endlessly demanding.

“We put people back in homes,” Arthur says. “And we enable volunteers to have an impact in the field.”

Many of the Team Rubicon volunteers, who uniformly wear grey T-shirts, are veterans. The organization is founded on the premise that, with their specialized training in combat, strategy and crisis management, veterans are uniquely suited for controlling chaos.

“Veterans have a propensity to volunteer, they’re built to serve,” Arthur says. “The disaster space requires complex response skills, which veterans understand. It requires leadership principles and strong communication, which comes naturally to former sergeants and commanders. They’re good with technology and understand mission objectives.”

Team Rubicon Greyshirts use heavy equipment and shovels to clear debris after 2020’s fire in Niland. Photo credit: Team Rubicon/DAVIS.

As an advisor to the Afghan Air Force, an intelligence officer at the Pentagon, and having over 22 years of cumulative military service on his résumé, Eric found in Team Rubicon a way to utilize skills that otherwise weren’t leveraged in civilian life.

“Driving into Niland felt like being in any of the poorest places I’ve been — Senegal, the Philippines, Afghanistan. The people in these places were poor and in need,” Eric says. “The feeling with Team Rubicon was familiar — let’s build, let’s fix this.”

Eric and Arthur both agree that while practical skills are a useful quality in a Team Rubicon volunteer, perhaps the most important traits are a positive attitude and desire to help.

“(Post traumatic stress) is the common narrative around veterans, like we’re broken goods,” Arthur says. “In reality, veterans come home with all these skills and training and nowhere to use it. Team Rubicon maintains wellbeing by giving them a way to connect with other veterans, put on the uniform, reconnect with their identity and have purpose.”

Though about 70 percent of Team Rubicon volunteers are veterans, a good number are everyday people with no military experience, who like a dose of community service with their travel. For these volunteers especially, receiving medical training in Papua New Guinea or instruction on chainsaw handling in the wilderness are priceless experiences that aren’t just great fodder for conversation but enhance the organization’s overall disaster response.

Team Rubicon Greyshirts use heavy equipment and shovels to clear debris after 2020’s fire in Niland. Photo credit: Team Rubicon/DAVIS.

Despite his top ranking within the organization, Arthur, too, finds purpose when he responds alongside boots-on-the-ground volunteers.

“I signed up as an Average Joe. I wanted to hang drywall,” Arthur says. “People have experienced tremendous trauma and when four or five of us show up to rebuild their house, they are relieved. Welcoming a family back to a reconstructed home is overwhelming.”

Volunteers rebuilt 110 homes in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and 40 houses after Hurricane Irma struck Florida. When wildfires swept southern California in 2019, Team Rubicon got to work rehoming people who fled their burning neighborhoods. The list goes on.

Eric remembers the emotion that washed over him while cleaning up the wreckage of scorched trailer homes in Niland.

“Pulling family photo albums out of the debris is really depressing,” Eric says. “It can be heavy to look around and see so much work, so many people needing your help. As you shovel debris in a lot where someone’s house was, you realize you are helping someone. You have to look at it as one person, one day at a time.”

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