When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Jake Wood was a student at the University of Wisconsin, playing football for the Badgers. A year later, when he heard about the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, Wood felt compelled to follow through on a lifelong urge to join the military. He walked into a Marine recruiter’s office after his final football game his senior year.
Wood served in the infantry, then was a scout sniper before transitioning out. He had been out of the Marines for just two months when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, killing 160,000 people and displacing a million more on Jan. 12, 2010. It triggered a reaction within him that would set the stage for a future organization focused on finding purpose, community, and identity after the military.
“It points back to a moment on 9/11, which was nine years earlier. You know, on 9/11 I felt this urge to serve, I felt called to serve, I felt that within me and I just didn’t do it. And so, when Haiti happened, it was this other call to action in my life where I felt the urge to do something,” Wood said. “I realized, I’m not going to let another moment pass me by and it was that coupled with the fact that I was still only 60 days out of the Marine Corps. I was still trying to grapple with that. This idea that that part of my life — serving a mission — was over.”
Wood and co-founder William McNulty got to work. They assembled a team of eight veterans and doctors to fly into neighboring Dominican Republic with supplies. They then drove into the disaster area to do whatever they could — all before the end of the week.
This was the birth of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that mobilizes veterans to continue service by helping prepare, respond and recover from large-scale disasters faster than traditional aid agencies. Since the Haiti earthquake, the organization has grown to more than 130,000 volunteers — known as Greyshirts — across the U.S. and has launched more than 700 operations both domestically and internationally.
Wood had no idea his small corps of eight volunteers would experience so much growth within 10 years.
“I don’t think we intentionally set out to disrupt anything,” Wood recalls. “I think what we intentionally did was build an organization that we’d want to be a part of, something inclusive that spoke to our generation of veterans, which only by happenstance cuts against the grain of some traditional VSOs because they were built for a different generation.”
With no prior experience in nonprofit management, Team Rubicon was built in a way that Wood thought an organization should be built, which would integrate veterans and their skills using a familiar environment. He says it was a benefit to start with a blank canvas.
“The reality is, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. I was a first-time entrepreneur and … in some ways I’m kind of still learning as I go. I think it was to our advantage early on that we didn’t have the experience of working with or engaging other nonprofits or veteran organizations because we got to start from scratch and say, if we can build the perfect organization for us — for me personally — then that was kind of the goal. Through that lens we really built a post-9/11 organization that appealed to the generation that we came from,” Wood said.
An important part of that was using a structure and protocols similar to the military, something Team Rubicon does by design. Wood says they wanted to create an atmosphere that feels familiar to its volunteers without overdoing it. Team Rubicon uses integrated plans and manuals; the way military doctrine is designed. Those manuals are the result of collected best practices of emergency management, military humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, among other sources.
“We try to take the best out of the military and leave all the bad stuff,” Wood said. “The military does a lot of things really well, so those are some of the things that we took with us.”
Nowhere was the need for reintegrating veterans into civilian life more apparent than right in front of the founders of Team Rubicon. Wood was a longtime friend of Clay Hunt, a fellow Marine who served with him in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Hunt was one of the original members of the team who deployed to Haiti in 2010. Sadly, he took his own life in 2011, an event that shifted the team from a disaster relief organization to an organization that supports veterans in their transition.
Team Rubicon has since created a fellowship training program in his honor.
The Clay Hunt Fellows Program is designed to help veterans redefine their purpose toward service after leaving the military. Any American veteran signed up with Team Rubicon can apply. It’s a six-month regimen of self-discovery that uses personality tests, focused discussion, reading and other means of self-reflection to help Team Rubicon members better lead in their communities.
“Clay discovered that service was going to be of importance to him,” Wood said. “He just didn’t know how. We take veterans and help them discover who they are, who they want to be and how to chart pathways in their life to continue to be of service and impact to their country. It made sense to do this in honor of Clay, because he was really the inspiration for it.”
One of an estimated 38,000 veterans’ organizations that have sprung up since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Team Rubicon sees the post-9/11 generation of veterans as more like its co-founder — motivated and skilled — with the desire to lead a service-oriented life.
“We were spurred to action through this sense of service, but back then we didn’t see it as defining the rest of our professional careers,” Wood said. “Being community-oriented was always a little bit a part of who I was, but now service is part of my DNA and Team Rubicon will always be part of my life.”
Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, Team Rubicon has not only pivoted to be able to continue to deliver disaster response and rebuild services in core mission areas, but it has also expanded the scope of missions to meet community needs brought about by the pandemic. This has required the development of extensive protocols that allow its Greyshirts to swiftly and safely continue to deliver on its core mission of disaster response which has recently included operations for Hurricanes Laura, Isaias, Hanna and the recent derecho in the Midwest. To learn more about service opportunities, visit Team Rubicon online.
Jake Wood’s new book “Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home,” details the development of Team Rubicon and the importance of giving meaningful direction to the lives of U.S. military veterans. Find it on bookshelves starting Nov. 10, 2020.