Susan Ward had only served five weeks in the military when she was medically discharged after an injury — but that didn't change the fact that she wanted a life in service.
"From that moment when I got out, I was devastated," she tells NationSwell. "That was my life goal and plan. I didn't know what to do. I love helping and serving people, doing what I can for people."
That feeling isn't uncommon for thousands of military veterans who have a hard time transitioning to civilian life. Though unemployment among veterans who have served since 2001 has gone down, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 370,000 veterans who were still unemployed in 2018.
Numerous transition programs exist to help vets bridge that gap, but for Ward, finding a gig — or even volunteer work — that was service-oriented was necessary for her happiness. She eventually became a firefighter in Alaska, but after 10 years a different injury forced Ward to leave yet another job she loved. She fell into a deep depression, she says, and struggled to find another role that allowed her to fulfill her passion for public service.
"I was on Facebook one day and just saw this post about Team Rubicon, and I had this moment of, 'Oh my gosh, I need to do this,'" she says.
Team Rubicon began as a volunteer mission in 2010 after the earthquake that devastated Haiti. The organization offered disaster relief by utilizing the help of former service workers from the military and civilian sectors.
First Team Rubicon operation in Haiti(Team Rubicon photo)
It has since evolved into an organization fueled by 80,000 volunteers. The majority are veterans who assist with everything from clearing trees and debris in tornado-ravaged towns to gutting homes that have been destroyed by floods. The teams, which are deployed as units, also work alongside other disaster-relief organizations, such as the Red Cross.
Similar to Ward, Tyler Bradley, a Clay Hunt fellow for Team Rubicon who organizes and develops volunteers, battled depression after he had to leave the Army due to a genetic health problem.
"After I found [Team Rubicon], I was out doing lots of volunteer work. My girlfriend noticed and said she would see the old Tyler come back," Bradley says. "Team Rubicon turned my life around."
"There's one guy who says that just because the uniform comes off doesn't mean service ends," says Zachary Brooks-Miller, director of field operations for Team Rubicon. He adds that the narrative around the value of veterans has to change. "We don't take the approach that our vets are broken; we see vets as a strength within our community."
In addition to Team Rubicon's disaster-relief efforts, the organization also helps to empower veterans and ease their transition into the civilian world, according to Christopher Perkins, managing director at Citi and a member of the company's Citi Salutes Affinity Steering Committee. By collaborating with Citi, Team Rubicon was able to scale up its contributions, allowing service workers to provide widespread relief last year in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Those efforts were five times larger than anything the organization had previously done and brought even more veterans into the Team Rubicon family.
Team Rubicon cleanup
"Being around my brothers and sisters in arms whom I missed so much, it was so clear to me the impact Team Rubicon would have not only in communities impacted by disaster, but also among veterans," says Perkins, a former captain in the Marines. "Every single American should know about this organization."
Although Team Rubicon doesn't brand itself as a veterans' organization, it does view former members of the military as the backbone of its efforts. And many veterans see the team-building and camaraderie as a kind of therapy for service-related trauma.
"There are so many people who have [post-traumatic stress disorder] from different things, and when you're with family you have to pretend that you're OK," says Ward, who deals with PTSD from her time as a soldier and firefighter. "But when you're with your Team Rubicon family, it's a tribe."