Jake Wood, founder of Team Rubicon, opens up about his organization’s volunteer efforts
Back in 2010, after serving four years in the Marine Corps with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jake Wood wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life — until he saw news coverage of the devastating earthquake that had just hit Haiti. His impulse was to act. Knowing that his Marine Corps training would be a major asset in a disaster zone, he gathered a team of fellow vets to assist on the ground. This was the genesis of Team Rubicon, an organization started by Wood, which mobilizes veterans to continue their service by providing relief to those affected by natural disasters.
Wood writes about his time serving overseas, the difficult transition home, and ultimately how he found his life’s purpose in his new book, Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home. He recently chatted with Wake-Up Call about his experiences and his organization’s work.
Wake-Up Call: Although Team Rubicon started in Haiti, the majority of your work is now in the U.S. What have been some of Team Rubicon’s latest missions?
Jake Wood: We respond to everything from tornadoes to floods to hurricanes. When Covid-19 hit, we very quickly adapted the organization to respond both in a medical capacity, but also in a nontraditional disaster response capacity. On the medical side, we have done everything from establishing a 250 bed medical station in Santa Clara, California, to deploying hundreds of medics into Navajo Nation and treating 3,000 patients there. Even in non-Covid times, that’s one of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in the US, so we were really proud of that work.
We’ve also operated dozens of mobile Covid-19 testing sites, mostly in California. On the other end of the spectrum, we knew early that the majority of food bank volunteers are over the age of 65, and we quickly made the assumption that those volunteers would stop going into the food banks because of the risk that was posed to them with Covid. So we partnered with organizations like Feeding America and Meals on Wheels, and we put about 10,000 volunteers into food banks in just about every state across the country to help support them.
Who are the volunteers that make up Team Rubicon?
About three quarters of our volunteers are veterans, the majority of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But one of our fastest growing demographics, and really one of our most critical demographics, is Vietnam veterans. Vietnam veterans are just now reaching retirement age, so they’re leaving the workforce and they’re looking for something to do. It’s well-documented that Vietnam veterans had a terrible transition home. Their country did not welcome them home with open arms, which is a tragedy, and many of them are still trying to process that. When they discover Team Rubicon, some of them use the work to really take a thoughtful approach to making sense of their wartime experience, maybe for the first time since they’ve returned. And some of them who were successful in their transition home feel an obligation to help and mentor this next generation of veterans back into society. So they’re joining up and they’re really serving as mentors to the younger Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
In your book, you explain that many people think that the high rates of death by suicide among vets are solely due to PTSD, when in reality it’s a lot more complicated. Can you explain that?
I want to caveat this by saying I’m not a clinician, but in my observation, veteran suicide is often tied or linked to the dearth of purpose, community, and identity. Those are the three things we focus on in Team Rubicon, in addition to post-traumatic stress.
One of the things I talk about in the book is that we often conflate post-traumatic stress with things like survivor’s guilt and moral injury. The problem when we do that is that post-traumatic stress is a clinical diagnosis that requires real clinical interventions. But if somebody is suffering from a moral injury, where they are having trouble justifying actions they took, or things they saw overseas, and rectifying that with the way they were raised from a moral standpoint, [prescription] drugs don’t solve that. Making sense of your friends’ sacrifice, making sense of your survival and your opportunity to make a positive impact in the world is what helps to address that. It’s really important for people to not simply lump all of these issues into one bucket of post-traumatic stress, because then we’re just pushing square pegs into round holes with our solutions, and that’s just not the right approach.
How does Team Rubicon help veterans to face issues that may not be directly related to PTSD?
What we do is we give veterans a mission. We tell them that they didn’t come home broken, that they came back stronger. That they still have more to give, and that their country still needs them. What they discover is that they still have the opportunity to impact the world in a positive way, in many cases by using the skills that they learned in war, which is a powerful concept. Many of the skills you learn for combat, for killing, can actually be used for healing and for building. That’s a really cathartic realization for veterans. Beyond that, we put them into a community of like-minded people, oftentimes with very similar experiences who can help them make sense of what they’re going through. One of the points I make in the book is that coming home, the transition from war, that’s a lifetime journey. You’re never fully back. You’re forever changed. So then it’s about figuring out how to make peace with that.
What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about veterans for the average civilian?
I think most people assume that if you went overseas, you were like Rambo — slinging bullets every day, always near death with the enemy. I served in the infantry in the bloodiest province of Iraq during the bloodiest year of the war. Certainly there were battles that preceded me, like the battle of Fallujah three years prior, that were 25 straight days of combat and were hellacious. But over a seven-month span when I was there, we got attacked every couple of days. Those attacks lasted 20 to 25 minutes on average, sometimes several hours. That’s what it was like for a guy who was in the most combat intensive units.
When we were running missions, we might only get attacked every three days, but we were going on patrols twice a day, seven days a week. Every single time you’re on patrol, you’re waiting for that attack — you’re either waiting to step on a bomb, or you’re waiting for some complex ambush to spring. Days when that doesn’t happen aren’t any less terrifying for those three hours that you’re out on that foot patrol. So that really wears on your nervous system.
On the other hand, if you were a logistician, you probably went seven months and maybe observed one roadside bomb. That’s not to dismiss that person’s experience in any way. But I think everybody assumes that it’s daily combat, like Band of Brothers style, storming Omaha beach. So if you think everybody who served had that experience, it’s natural to assume that every veteran is going to come home with PTSD, and be riddled with anxiety, and have flashbacks. That’s just simply not the case. In the prologue of the book, I use an example of a woman who is a company commander who managed a supply company of hundreds of soldiers. She’s probably running these resupplies through IED-riddled highways, but she’s not in constant contact with the enemy. It’s dangerous, but what she’s really doing is a job. She’s effectively like a supply chain manager for Walmart, but she’s doing it in a combat zone. She’s probably not coming back with PTSD. She’s probably not coming back with flashbacks. She’s probably just coming back with amazing experience, and is able to do that same job in a corporation where the stakes are much, much lower.