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US veterans fill their own void delivering aid to Philippines

Members of Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization staffed by US veterans, are using their military skills in the Philippines — and finding the camaraderie they miss in the process. 

The plastic crate sitting outside a sweltering makeshift military terminal serves as both a seat for Peter Meijer and a container for 150-plus pounds of nails, hammers, and military-style quick-prep meals. Both he and the supplies are about to head out to the region of the Philippines hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan.

A former US Army medic, Mr. Meijer is a member ofTeam Rubicon, a volunteer organization comprised largely of US veterans doing relief work in disaster-hit places like Tacloban, Philippines, where more than 5,200 died and more than 4 million remain homeless more than two weeks after the storm.

The organization isn’t just lending a crucial role in helping aid the ravaged Tacloban region, harnessing the organizational training and skills learned by service men and women in war zones. It’s also filling a void for many of them who miss the intense bonds and clear mission of the military.

“Without a doubt, the number one response when people hear about Team Rubicon is, ‘Duh, of course. Why wouldn’t veterans be terrific at disaster response?’” says Meijer, who served in one of the toughest neighborhoods of Baghdad in 2010-11.

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After stumbling on the organization, Meijer adds that he also had a reaction that many of his fellow former troops have had: “It was, ‘I’ve been waiting to find out about something like this.’ ” 

The group’s co-founder, Jacob Wood, is a square-jawed Iowa native who graduated college with a business degree and promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps. After four years in the military, including a deployment to Iraq in 2007, and another to Afghanistan in 2008, Wood got out.

Then came the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when he and his Team Rubicon co-founder William McNulty, also a Marine, went down to aid in disaster relief. While working on the ground, they realized that veterans have many of the skills to help in relief efforts.

From that first mission in Haiti, the organization has continued to grow to its current roster of more than 12,000 volunteers.

Team Rubicon has “all the best parts of the US military — mission, purpose, camaraderie — without the bad parts, like having to shave,” says Meijer, who has volunteered in southern Sudan and helped spearhead search and rescue efforts during Hurricane Sandy. 

Volunteers bring in all their own water and food, usually favoring freeze-dried supplies or the specially packaged military food known as Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs. The key is to be self-sufficient, Meijer says.

“The first rule of disaster response is don’t be a victim,” he says. Otherwise, “you’re just taking aid away from those who need it.”

In Manila, the presence of military veterans who are now civilians, as well as Team Rubicon’s visibility around the centers of military operation, have riled some in the aid community, who have criticized the group for hogging the spotlight. Some of the groups also complain of being bumped from flights.

But Wood defends his organization, saying that if team members come on strong, it is because “veterans are used to making difficult decisions in difficult situations.”

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Indeed, part of Rubicon’s success, Wood argues, is knowing how the military works and what it needs, which comes in handy during large disasters in which US troops are brought in.  This is particularly important since the US military controls the flights that run to the disaster zones— flights which move aid shipments, vehicles, and volunteers.

“It really helps that we’re familiar with the chain of command,” Meijer says.

With a group of 43 men and women volunteers in Philippines, Team Rubicon is also using the mission to field-test a new drone model, a helicopter roughly the size of a toaster, to monitor how food and water are being distributed.

Amanda Burke, who previously was a military captain and signals intelligence officer and  is now part of Rubicon’s Philippines team, said the greatest strength of the organization is putting veterans’ skills into disaster relief.

Ms. Burke was dissatisfied with her post-military career as a consultant in Washington, so she and her husband went on a backpacking trip around the United States.

On the trip, it became clear to them, she says, that “We wanted to be a part of something we believe in.”

She also saw her fellow veterans coming back Afghanistan “missing that sense of community ,” she adds, “and they don’t necessarily know how to cope with that.”

That’s a common sentiment among Team Rubicon volunteers, who are often seeking the excitement, camaraderie, and “sense of mission” that they had in the military, Wood says.

As she helps load up hundreds of pounds of supplies to build a medical clinic in the remote areas outside Tacloban that aid groups are still struggling to reach, Burke agrees.   

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“It’s nice to have a sense of purpose again,” she says.