Standing beside his daughter in the tropical heat of the Bahamas in the days after Hurricane Dorian, Michael “Top” Washington thought also of his son, Michael Jr. This, he imagined, must be what serving in the military together might have been like. But, Michael had died in 2008 while serving as a Marine Corps squad leader in Afghanistan — a loss that had sent retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Top into a tailspin.
To climb out, Top had poured himself into other service. He joined Team Rubicon, the veteran-led disaster response nonprofit, and began deploying on multiple missions from the Haiti earthquake to flooding in his home state of Washington. That is how, in the fall of 2019, Top found himself serving alongside his daughter, Aja Collins, in a disaster zone. Instead of serving in the theater of war, they were in The Bahamas responding to Category 5 Hurricane Dorian.
Top, who has lost count of how many times he has deployed with Team Rubicon, first joined in 2010 after the Haiti earthquake. So, heading into the Bahamas, he was prepared for a landscape of twisted devastation, and for heat, humidity, lack of power, and thousands of people without someplace safe to sleep. He was unprepared for what he would find in his daughter, Aja, however. An ICU nurse and mother of two, Aja had been among the first to arrive in Abaco. She had signed up to volunteer with Team Rubicon in 2014, but this was her first deployment, yet she’d fallen into the battle rhythm quickly. When Top landed later, reports began filter up: Aja always had a smile on her face. No matter how hard, how hot, or how dirty the work was, there was no stopping her, people said. And, she was a great teammate.
“I arrived and she had already made her name out there,” Top admits struggling to disguise his pride. “I was the newbie, the new guy coming in.”
Over the course of their week mucking houses, clearing debris and helping Bahamians secure safe places to sleep, father and daughter didn’t always work side-by-side but they did have a chance to do some heavy lifting together. Aja is even rumored to have bested her dad at a friendly competition of who-can-pull-the-heaviest-sled-full-of-debris.
“I always wonder what it would have been like to deploy with my son,” said Top, quietly. “I know that going to war is different than a disaster area, to be sure, but I think this [providing disaster relief alongside Aja] would have been the same kind of thing. It’s good to have that energy out there.”
When she hears that Aja is speechless. Then, she reflects on the similarities between her brother and dad, and how she believes Michael would have been an incredible Greyshirt — Team Rubicon volunteer— too.
Aja believes Team Rubicon saved her father’s life — that it helped to give him purpose after Michael’s death — and serving together in the Bahamas let her see that for herself.
“I mentioned he has a heart for service, and that he feels almost useless if he’s not helping other people, but deploying with Team Rubicon I could see firsthand the camaraderie and the sense of family that he gets from the organization — and also being able to help people; the pure aspect of helping people.”
In the year since Hurricane Dorian, Top and Aja have been focused on serving locally and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic within their communities. Top is with the Seattle Fire Department; Aja has been working as an ICU nurse in a COVID ward in Augusta, GA. Both hope to be back in the field again soon— on their own or as part of the family team. Valerie, Top’s wife, is also a Greyshirt, so serving as a family unit isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Until then, they have a new kind of family bond, and memories of how mucking out swamped houses and straightening hurricane-twisted siding brought them even closer.Read comments