Another Air Force vet, who didn’t want to be named, told me, “I realized after I left [the military], I don’t miss the circus, but I do miss the clowns.”
I shared how, as I understood it, people’s experiences in the armed services often were as different as their reasons for joining. An acquaintance of mine, an ex-Marine, considered his service the most meaningful thing he’d ever done. Whereas another friend, also Marines, struggled daily with PTS, post-traumatic stress. I later spoke to another veteran volunteer, Timothy, who went by T.K. “I am 100 percent PTSD through the federal government,” he told me quietly. His trauma derived from a domestic engagement, he explained, not foreign: five months of recovery work in the hellish aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I asked him what he saw; he said he didn’t want to talk about it. Though there’d been a period, after his deployment, he’d been so unable to leave the house, the only way he could play catch with his kids was from his bed.
“I went through 12 years of hell after [getting out],” he said. “The VA had me on 26 different psych meds.” Today, both of his arms were sleeved with tattoos. One referenced the amount of veterans that die by suicide each day. “That number’s probably out of date now,” he said soberly. T.K. lived in Michigan, where, in addition to his work with Team Rubicon, he’d started several organizations to help veterans; by helping them, he said, he helped himself. “Team Rubicon gives me something to look forward to. It’s organizations like this that literally can save lives.”
Meaning, I was to understand, the lives of the veteran volunteers as much as the people they served.
Team Rubicon, like many large organizations, has struggled during its growth. Lawsuits remain pending between the national organization and some of its international operations, over allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment by some of its leaders outside the States. A representative for TR said that Team Rubicon Global ceased operations in March of 2021, and that the legal case between the two entities is ongoing.
In Florida, at the end of the day, we cleaned the chainsaws and drove back to basecamp for hot showers, a hot meal, and a campfire that evening where different strike team members shared moments from the day. One of our group detailed how the highlight had come as a total surprise—when, mid-afternoon, the woman who was camping there arrived out of the blue. She was a tiny white lady in shorts, a purple T-shirt, and a pair of Vans. She looked to be in her sixties. She looked, as she slowly wandered through the trees, to be in utter shock. We’d cleared a ton of wreckage, chopped down and hauled away at least a dozen trees. “Oh my god, oh my god!” she repeated under her breath, and started to cry. “I just can’t believe it. God bless you all.”