Last week I deployed with Team Rubicon on my first ever disaster response operation: Operation Hard Hustle. I can tell you I got more out of the experience than I gave—serving others and doing important work in the company of other military veterans and first responders is soul-cleansing. This post is my reflection on that week.
Doing good work and serving others is my primary reason for volunteering, but there is a secondary benefit as well. The experience also provides a place for veterans to be among other veterans, and to reconnect with the “brotherhood.” Having spent my entire adult life in uniform, I relish that connection. WW II soldier and Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin called it the “Benevolent And Protective Brotherhood Of Them What Has Been Shot At”, and that’s a discription I’ve thought about many times over the course of my career.
My Air Force specialty was civil engineering and installation management, which means when bad things happened I went to work. Being retired from the Air Force, I was now on the sidelines of a disaster happening just a few hours by car away from me. I felt the need to be there, and so enter Team Rubicon. I’ve written about Team Rubicon before, but in a nutshell it’s a veteran-led organization who respond to disasters. When we were in the military, we received a lot of training on handling chaos and trauma—some of us were medics, rescue personnel, infantry, engineers, etc. Team Rubicon allows us to put our military experience and training to work as well as continue to serve.
I can tell you I got more out of the experience than I gave—serving others and doing important work in the company of other military veterans and first responders is soul-cleansing.
Pack Your Stuff
When Hurricane Harvey headed for the Texas coast gaining strength, I felt I just couldn’t sit idle while people were about to have their lives shattered when I had the skills to help. On Thursday with Harvey’s rain pounding and wind howling outside, I filled out the forms, did the training, and submitted my background check. And waited.
I didn’t have to wait long.
On Sunday afternoon I received the coveted “green dot” on my TR Profile meaning I was cleared, and an email with deployment orders to join the first wave of volunteers at Forward Operating Base (FOB) FRIENDSWOOD in Friendswood, Texas. Most of my field gear and camping equipment is still in storage in Colorado, so I was off to Academy and Walmart to get a few things, then on Tuesday morning I drove the three hours down to our FOB for operations in the area. Our Area of Operations (AO) would include Friendswood, Dickinson, League City, Alvin, and Hitchcock. The Incident Command team of four seasoned TR volunteers was there a few days ahead of us, and we began operations as soon as we got signed in.
Professionals Talk Logistics
The first order of business for the handful of new arrivals was to set the logistics for the remainder of the deployment. We re-positioned vehicles, drew tools and equipment, and set up two dozen cots in the gym that would be our living quarters. I must say that the good people who hosted and supported us at Friendswood United Methodist were amazing. The fed us three meals a day, washed our clothes, and provided small comforts like toiletries, home baked goodies, and pillows. Can’t say enough about them and their servants’ hearts!
On Day 2 while a most of our team headed out to do Damage Assessments and work at a house (“Strike Team”), three of us headed to a warehouse down at the airport that would be our Reception, Staging, Onward Movement, and Integration (RSOI) center for Greyshirts (TR volunteers) arriving in the next week. We spend the morning cleaning it and getting the RSOI center ready, then back to the FOB after repositioning more vehicles, picking up others, and drawing more equipment for our teams.
“It’s Too Dangerous for My Children”
On Days 3-5, I was finally able to get into the field and begin working with the people affected by the flooding. We went house to house in a Dickinson and Friendswood meeting with residents trying to cope with the wreckage that had been their homes. Whether a house got 4 inches or 4 feet of water, the damage was largely the same. Imagine taking everything you own and piling it in a wet, moldy heap in the front yard. That’s what the flooded areas look like.
One woman took the moment with us away from her family to shed a few tears with my teammate, afraid to be anything other than positive and strong in front of her husband and her kids. Another calmly told us the story of getting out of his house as the water went from ankle-deep to waist deep to chest deep so quickly they got out with the clothes on their backs in the boat they had in the driveway. He told us sadly about that during the evacuation, one of the family dogs was swept under the boat and drowned.
Another family in Dickinson told of a harrowing story of getting out as the flood waters rose. A woman in her 60’s walked her disabled brother and elderly neighbor through waist deep water following the yellow line on the road—none of them could swim. When she arrived at her 92-year-old mother’s house, she evacuated all of them by boat with the clothes on their backs.
Another woman flagged us down and told us she needed help. She spoke English slightly better than I speak Spanish, and we communicated in a blend of the two languages. While her young daughter slept in the car seat, she told us with tears welling in her eyes that she discovered only after the flood that she’d been renting her house, rather than paying a mortgage. With two little ones with her, and her son in the Navy in California, she was unsure what to do next because she couldn’t go home (“demasiado peligroso para mis niños –it’s too dangerous for my children”).
There are thousands of stories like that.
I completed the last two days of my tour in the command post as Deputy Ops, and it was gratifying to see the work we gathered getting scheduled and teams dispatched. At the end of seven amazing days, I said good-bye to the team and returned home.
Everyone we met had an unshakable faith in God. Through the flood waters and devastation of their homes, their faith in God and in each other had remained unvanquished.
Despite the occasional tears, two things struck me: the resilience of the people and the amazing example of who we are as Texans and Americans these people provided.
First, Houstonians specifically and Texans in general are incredibly resilient. Many of the houses we visited had already had a volunteer group come through and provide initial demolition assistance. It’s imperative to get the wet stuff out of the house quickly to avoid dangerous mold growth. Neighbors shared food by having cookouts and checked on each other. One man we met assembled a trailer with a grill and coolers, worked a deal with the local Walmart manager to buy food, and then circulated around neighborhoods feeding people. Even those we met who opened their hearts and cried a little always took a big breath and let resolve to go forward settle on them before we left. Everyone we met had an unshakable faith in God. Through the flood waters and devastation of their homes, their faith in God and in each other had remained unvanquished.
Second, spending a week with volunteers and Houstonians reinforced to me that America is still who we thought she is. America remains the City on a Hill. Men and women from all over the country came to help Houstonians recover. Groups of volunteers from countless churches, neighborhoods, and civic organizations went house to house to help strangers. We saw perhaps a dozen other volunteer groups working in each neighborhood.
While as a Texan I believe there’s something special about Texas, I’ve traveled enough and lived enough other places to know that if Texans indeed did anything truly extraordinary it was only to remind our fellow Americans who we are as a country.
Our team visited with men and women of every color, creed, and background. Time and again I heard them tell me, “All that division is crap. We’re Americans, we’re Texans.” We honestly believe All Men Are Created Equal and in the “image and likeness of God”; it’s not a slogan here. I’m not naive, I know there are problems and people sometimes do bad, even evil, things to each other. But I also know the vast majority of people around us are good and decent, and will be there for you when things get bad. While as a Texan I believe there’s something special about Texas, I’ve traveled enough and lived enough other places to know that if Texans indeed did anything truly extraordinary it was only to remind our fellow Americans who we are as a country.
Move to the Sound of the Guns
Napoleon’s standing order for units out of communication with his headquarters was to “move to the sound of the guns.” It is an imperative to act and not wait for someone to tell you what to do. There was no gunfire on the Texas Gulf Coast, but there was a battle to be waged against Nature and it was good men and women who moved to the metaphorical “sound of the guns” when things went bad. Napoleon’s order is something military people and first responders do instinctively, and I believe there’s something in the Texan and American character that drives that instinct. We saw that play out on TV countless times when men and women “moved to the sound of the guns” to help their neighbors. Federal, State, local authorities, and volunteers didn’t wait for someone to give them orders; they acted and worked together to save lives and now to rebuild them.
My Team Rubicon teammates were there doing swift water rescues, and we’ll be there to help Houston rebuild. It’s TR men and women: veterans, first responders, medical professionals, and a few civilians in the mix who represent what’s right about America.
The City on a Hill may have a few potholes and broken windows, but she remains a shining example of who America truly is as a country. We really are who we say we are, and I believe that now more than ever.
Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s.