The call came on the Saturday before election day.
"Pat, we need a good logistics guy up in New York to get things ready for our big push. We want to mobilize at least 1,000 volunteers on the ground and things are turning into a major clusterf---. Can you get up there NOW and unfu-- things? We want to fly you out ASAP and get the ball rolling, when can you be at an airport?"
As a member of Team Rubicon's VERT (Veteran Emergency Response Team) for Region VI, I had, not too long ago returned from volunteering in lower St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes after Hurricane Isaac. My deployment bags were packed, as they always are, and even though I had been keeping a watchful eye on Hurricane Sandy's development and track, and knew without doubt that it was going to be a killer storm for the NYC/ New Jersey shore, I did not anticipate being asked to deploy. But, to those of us that have made "Service before Self" a lifestyle, once that call does come, nothing else matters. Occasionally this dedication to duty extracts heavy personal costs including lost or damaged relationships, spotty employment/work histories, personal expenses dedicated to on-the-spot emergency needs, and the uncertainty surrounding details like when one is to return, exactly what we may be called upon to do once at the Disaster Zone, and personal health and safety issues...For Team Rubicon members though, all of whom have been hand-picked after careful examination of their military experience or civilian medical qualifications, these kinds of concerns are simply NOT issues to be mitigated, they are FACTS which must be worked around.
I had a family funeral in which I, along with my brother and cousins, bore pall for our Grandfather the following Monday, but I told my Regional Operations Director that I was available at any point after that. Within hours of laying my Grandfather to eternal rest in a Yorktown cemetery, I was on a Jet Blue flight into JFK airport. Competing family and Mission priorities is nothing new for those that have experience military deployments or emergency response taskings, and no, most of us simply do not see such requirements as "sacrifices"; we simply see it as "what we do".
On short final into New York City, I was able to get a look at Rockaways, Queens, the specific area that Team Rubicon responders would be focusing efforts . Every disaster zone is the same, yet every disaster zone is unique, and no matter how many times I have seen the destruction, smelt the brackish salt-water inundation, witnessed the despair and hopelessness on the faces of those that have lost everything; personally, I am never fully "prepared".
The largest rock-climbing gym in NYC (which I must assume means just about anywhere) had generously agreed to house us in a warehouse straddling the Park Slope and South Brooklyn neighborhoods of that burrough, The space was gigantic, with enough space to store and dispatch all of our tools and machinery, park and stage most of our vehicles, and bed down the Team Rubicon Veteran volunteers that were being flown in from as far away as Alaska to establish boots on the ground leadership and assistance on the ground in the the disaster zone. In many ways, this staging base was ideal, but there were significant challenges that simply had to be accepted. There was no heat, there were no toileting facilities, showers simply did not exist, all that was available for food upon my arrival was military MRE (meals, ready to eat) rations. For other disaster relief or charitable organizations, these realities may have made operations from such a facility impossible, but for Team Rubicon, they were, at best, minor annoyances. Every single VERT member being flown into NYC knew to expect very Spartan living conditions, and for most of us, the hastily arranged billeting/staging for this operation was MUCH better than some of the places we operated out of during military combat or contingency operations. Over the next two weeks, my life was focused entirely on providing the very best support possible to all team members deployed on this Operation. I quickly assembled a small logistics team and together we processed, equipped, housed, and fed over 200 Veteran Volunteers from across the Nation. Through the generosity of our donors, which ranged from those that sent in five or ten dollars through the Team Rubicon website, to 7 figure donations from Corporate sponsors such as Home Depot and Goldman-Sachs, the money that came in one day, was being directly applied to work done the following day. Our HQ element, including the two Iraq/Afghan Veterans that founded Team Rubicon during the earthquake response in Haiti, was sleeping in the same 30 degree warehouse and using the same Port-a-can toilets as any other volunteer. No showers were available for any of us for the duration of our deployment. Donations were certainly NOT being used to support frivolous overhead. Other agencies have a culture that seems to put obstacles in the way of ensuring that every dollar received is put directly and immediately to work funding operations down in the sandy, mucky, moldy places that the work is being performed. Not Team Rubicon. Please look them up online. Over 3,000 spontaneous volunteers were formed into work crews led by Team Rubicon VERT members and dispatched on daily missions assisting homeowners with debris removal, house stripping, and muck-out jobs. This heart-rendering process of having to part with everything that one has earned and accumulated during the course of a lifetime is work that can carry extreme emotional weight and assistance must be rendered in an effective, yet sensitive manner. Team Rubicon Veterans, though, have almost all dealt with similar situations during war and humanitarian military experiences, and are uniquely qualified to respond, here at home, when such needs arise.
As anyone with a background in emergency and crisis Logistics knows, uncertainty and questions are always looking to be turned into plans and answers, and doing so was my minute to minute job. Processing incoming personnel at all hours of the day and night, procuring vital equipment, supplies, and services, often at a moments notice, and handling emergency medical, social, and political issues as they arose, was my hour-to-hour responsibility...It was three days before I slept, four days until I slept on a Red Cross emergency shelter cot, and a week and a half before I was able to get more than three hours of slumber at a time. But as uncomfortable and stressful as things were at the logistics base in Brooklyn, it was all out war (sans only the violence) down in the Rockaways neighborhoods that out teams were leading volunteers to work in everyday.
While other Veteran-oriented groups such as VFW, IAVA, American Legion, etc, encouraged us to join them for a flag-worshiping, feel-good Veterans Day parade in Manhattan, our organization remained dedicated to the mission- assisting those still without power and with basements still full of flood debris. Parades, prayers, and ceremony are fine, I suppose, but for those of us with actual, operational, and mission focused personalities, they are NO SUBSTITUTION for ACTION. The culture of Rubicon is a perfect fit for those Veterans that prefer actually DOING something to the Bullsh-t that surrounds high-visibility events such as parades and patriotic show-cases. Several organizations exist right here in the Victoria area that could learn a lot from this example, but sometimes, it really is easier to simply wave a flag or talk about "God and Country", I guess. Point blank; political and business leaders in this area MUST start doing a better job at recognizing the strengths and experiences of ALL Veterans (especially Desert Vets) and allowing them opportunities to truly LEAD in their communities and businesses. Speaking bluntly; a 25 year old with two or three combat tours DOES know more and IS MORE capable than a 45 or 50 year old supervisor or civic leader that has never had to deal with people or situations beyond those arising in daily, small-town, South Texas life.
Operations of this scale and scope tend to wind down just as rapidly as they ramp up, and for most responders that means a return home to family and friends, being able to sleep predictable hours, and running hot-water showers. For Logistics folks it means that things get even busier, ensuring that all personnel and equipment are properly retro-graded.
Often forgotten during high visibility military and contingency operations is the fact that select logistical and transportation assets REALLY are the "First in and Last out" of any operation. When I joined the Air Force as a 17 year-old kid in 1992, and was assigned to work as an Air Transportation Specialist within a highly-mobile, aerial delivery-capable, combat-focused, specialized unit, a die had been cast for the rest of my life. Since then I have worked transportation jobs with airlines, trucking companies, and at sea with marine transportation businesses. If everything goes as it should and folks like me do our jobs well, we remain mostly invisible....if we screw just ONE thing up, it has the potential of compromising the entire mission and placing lives, both of disaster victims, and those we have deployed with, in danger.
It was an honor to be called upon to accomplish what, before I left Texas seemed to me an impossible task. I had never been to New York City. Due to the very real factor of PTSD (for which I am rated as Service Connected Disabled for by Veterans Affairs), I have had severe difficultly finding and maintaining traditional employment, especially in the small-town, stigma-laden, Victoria area. I had never, as an Airman, or a civilian, been placed is such a responsible position. My very own brother, who served in the military, yet never deployed to a combat zone or contingency was continuing his almost year-long campaign to attempt to discredit me personally, dismiss PTSD as a "made up" condition, and spread lies and half-truths about my background within any group or organization that I might align myself with. Team Rubicon encourages its Veteran Volunteers to use social media to keep donors and supporters updated about exactly how and where their vital donations are being put to use, because of this harassment, I deactivated my Facebook account until I redeployed, and focused on the task at hand...There were a thousand reasons why, I, personally, SHOULD have failed in this tasking, but because of the Faith and Belief vested in me by our organization's leaders, and also owing to the almost sacred duty that I knew I owed to every single Veteran deployed on this mission, the Operation was a resounding success, both operationally and logistically.
For more information about Team Rubicon, and WHY we do what we do; please watch this excellent and intense video, produced by TR's media detachment last week in Rockaways, Queens: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgEn4ZmTzD4
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