Crossing the Rubicon for disaster response

Members of Team Rubicon respond to the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. The organization, which was founded by U.S. Marines William McNulty and Jacob Wood, aims to unite the skills and training of military veterans with first responders to improve disaster response. Photo by: Team Rubicon

When Marine Corps veterans Jake Wood and William McNulty led a medical team into Port-au-Prince, Haiti six years ago, the post-earthquake challenges brought back memories of other deployments — in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They returned home from Haiti to set up Team Rubicon with two goals: improving overseas disaster response and finding new ways to bring military veterans into humanitarian operations. Devex visited Los Angeles, California, to learn how Team Rubicon is expanding opportunities to serve, maximizing its capacity as a disaster relief organization, and influencing the field of humanitarian response.

Beyond a door marking the “Global HQ” of Team Rubicon is an office space and a work culture built around the motto: “Disasters are our business. Veterans are our passion.”

Past a wall of pictures of Team Rubicon volunteers in camouflage pants and hard hats, a poster on the wall reads: “Get Shit Done.” In a large room known as the bullpen, which has seen many conference calls and heard many curse words, columns of tape divide rows of names and flight numbers. On the table lies a kurki, the characteristic weapon of the Nepalese army, coated in the chocolate frosting of a birthday cake it recently cut.

David Burke, director of field operations and a former logistics officer in the Marine Corps, spoke with Devex about a shift in Team Rubicon’s focus, from disaster response using veteran service to veteran service using disaster response.

“When Clay Hunt lost his fight to [post-traumatic stress disorder], that was the moment that really solidified the potential for impact beyond a hobby,” Burke said.

He explained how Hunt — who was with Wood and McNulty in Haiti — took his own life not because of what he experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan, but because of what he lost when he returned home. Team Rubicon changed its model to ensure that it would help veterans find a renewed sense of self worth. “There's no doubt in my mind that providing relief to affected populations gives veterans a sense of community, purpose, and identity,” said Burke. “Now how do we scale the opportunity and leverage these skills to help as many people as possible?”

Last year, Team Rubicon carried out 35 domestic operations and three international operations, with overlapping missions in Kathmandu, Nepal, and Barikiki, Kiribati, as well as an operation in Roseau, Dominica. About 1,300 of Team Rubicon’s 31,910 members deployed to respond to these disasters, logging a total of 75,000 hours in the field.

Burke flipped over a piece of paper and sketched an organizational chart reading FIELD OPS up top then beneath it: membership, training, response, incident management team, international operations chief.

He talked about some of the challenges Team Rubicon has had with the Cluster Approach, the system the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs uses to avoid gaps and overlaps.

Volunteers who are asked to sit in on these meetings have to take a long term view in order to find value in the process, Burke said. He has to reassure them that their participation makes or breaks Team Rubicon’s reputation among the wider community of responders.

“We’re active participants within the existing systems now, but our default is to do, not to discuss,” Burke told Devex. He also mentioned the operational principles Team Rubicon follows day to day and even brings to these meetings: tenacity, excellence, impartiality, service, collaboration, transparency, accountability, priority, adaptability, and innovation.

The organization is expanding its international footprint with Team Rubicon Global, which McNulty leads. Team Rubicon is building a network of nonprofit organizations in countries like the United Kingdom where “veteran need is high and ample opportunities exist to respond to natural disasters.” TR U.K. responded along with TR USA to the earthquake in Nepal last year.

Wisey and Chris Lyon, Team Rubicon members from the United Kingdom, break up rocks in Sermanthang, Nepal. Photo by: Josh Walker, Team Rubicon

“There’s just this bias for action,” said Rod Rhines, head of disaster relief and stability operations for the Silicon Valley based data analysis company Palantir Technologies, a key partner for Team Rubicon. A former Navy SEAL, Rhines said veterans are used to pulling an ad hoc team together, snapping back into structure, and communicating with a common language. He described how, following Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, Team Rubicon volunteers who were awaiting approval for their plans to provide emergency medical support on Leyte island in the Philippines created ad hoc patrols.

Veterans come with a special skill set that makes them uniquely qualified for disaster response, said Jake Harriman, a former special operations platoon commander in the Marine Corps who founded the California-based Nuru International.

“The military trains leaders to be able to do effective crisis management, conduct rapid problem solving under enormous pressure, and move forward quickly acting on the 70 percent solution in uncertain environments with imperfect information to seize a moment and accomplish the mission,” Harriman wrote in an email. “Disaster response situations are highly chaotic, uncertain environments that in many ways mirror combat situations. These environments demand strong, confident and tested leaders, and veterans are an incredible pool of talent to tap into for these leaders.”

Team Rubicon also provides training to make sure its volunteers stay current with the hard skills they learned in the military that directly translate to disaster response, from search and rescue to demolition and construction to medical support and aid delivery. Team Rubicon volunteers are united by their military service in the same way that faith-based organizations find common cause, Rhines said.

Rubicon is the river in northeastern Italy that was the point of no return for Julius Caesar to march on Rome. Team Rubicon’s logo is a cross, the traditional symbol of medical aid, turned on its side with a river running through it. As the young organization grows and adapts its model to new countries, the question will be whether it can maintain its nimble, action-oriented approach.

“Other organizations that rely on volunteers, even medical volunteers, don’t know much about the skills or trainings their volunteers have, which is scary,” said Andrew MacCalla, director of international programs and emergency response at the California-based Direct Relief. “That is something that Team Rubicon has changed. It’s not a surprise volunteer or an unknown volunteer. It’s someone they can totally count on.”

“A decade of war is a horrible thing,” Rhines said. “A benefit is we have a tremendous number of people coming home that have applicable skills for disaster response. And what Team Rubicon has been able to do is harness those capabilities that likely otherwise aren't going to be used.”

Other humanitarian organizations should consider bringing on staff with military experience given how well suited they are for this work, MacCalla said. He shared a story from the 2010 Haiti earthquake response when he asked a former Marine sniper on the Direct Relief staff to stay with a delivery of medical supplies until trucks arrived for delivery.

“I was like, I’m sorry to say this, but you’re probably just going to have to sit on the tarmac for 12 hours today waiting for the trucks to come in for our medicine so no one steals it, and he says, “‘Andrew, I was just in Iraq. I stared through my gun for three days at a time. This is nothing.’”

So in addition to a bias for action, there is an aptitude for hurry up and wait.

Team Rubicon has veterans across the country and around the world ready to answer the call to deploy to remote locations with limited resources for missions that can help them heal as much as they help these communities recover. Team Rubicon is also scaling up its global response capabilities by opening an Emergency Operations Center in Dallas, Texas.

“It will consolidate a better operating picture so we can understand where capacity constraints are and forecast and budget and plan and grow,” Burke said. As Team Rubicon builds a staff there focused on domestic and global disasters, Burke said a priority is to improve data collection for more rapid mobilization.

“They have a lot of room to grow on their soft skills within the humanitarian response ecosystem.” Rhines added. "They have to play nicely and productively without losing the ability to move quickly and effectively."

Rhines and Harriman agreed that Team Rubicon would take its impact on the field of humanitarian response a step further by doing more to break down the walls that exist between military responders and other humanitarian responders. “They have a lot of good experience now and a solid understanding of how both sides operate,” Harriman said. He added that he hopes to see Team Rubicon build a training unit to build the capacity of disaster response NGOs and the U.S. military so they can more effectively coordinate in crisis situations.

“It would be great if they could become an effective training and command and control node to enable more fluid and seamless civ-mil coordination on site in a disaster.”

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.