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The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
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Nathan Hoffman
Nathan Hoffman
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
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Team Rubicon, social justice prize winners, Q&A

Jacob Wood and William McNulty co-founded Team Rubicon, which was one of the three 2012 Grinnell Prize winners. Their organization provides opportunities for veterans to volunteer in disaster relief efforts. Wood and McNulty have effectively addressed two issues—the struggle of veterans to re-integrate into society and the challenging logistics and needs of disaster relief. The S&B’s co-Editor-in-Chief Eliza Eve Leas sat down with the Team Rubicon founders during their visit to Grinnell to discuss their own military experience, the creation of Team Rubicon and the effects of their work on both veterans and the survivors of natural disasters.


You mentioned earlier today that both of you chose to enlist after college, which is a somewhat rare choice. Could you tell me a bit more about why you made the choice and what you thought afterward?

William McNulty: I made the choice to enlist after graduating from college for a few reasons. I wanted to be a Marine. I wanted to go into the Reserves and I wanted to be in the infantry. The only way to guarantee yourself that is to enlist. If you go in as an officer, it’s four years of active duty and you’re at the needs of the Marine Corps. Unless you graduate at the top of your class in the basic school, the Marine Corps is going to tell you what your M.O.S. [Military Occupational Specialty] is going to be. So those were the three reasons that I decided to enlist. I was considering at one point becoming an officer but I wanted that experience as a private first class. I thought that would make me a better officer if I had that experience of being the lowest man on the totem pole.

Jacob Wood: You enlisted in 2000?

WM: November 17.

JW: Mine was a little later and it was kind of a different Marine Corps then. I enlisted in 2005. When I made the decision during my senior year of college that I wanted to join the Marines, I knew I wanted to join, much like William, I knew I wanted to be in the infantry; I really wanted to lead men in combat. I wanted to be at the forefront of it, because I had just watched the whole debacle of the Fallujah battle unfold. When I talked to a number of different people who were either in the Marine Corps or had been in the Marine Corps or had experience overseas, they all said that if you want to actually be what’s called “at the point of friction,” that’s not the lieutenants job anymore at that point in the war. That’s the squad leader’s job, which is usually a sergeant or a corporal. Everyone told me that the best route to do that was enlist, so that’s what I did. And it proved to be a very wise choice at that point in the war; the war was being fought at the squad level. Most of the officers I knew were really displeased with their role in the war.


Obviously Team Rubicon is integrally tied into your experiences in the military. Could you give me a few details about how that works on a day-to-day basis? What did you learn in the military that connects to what you do now and how does that connect to the operations that Team Rubicon completes?

JW: The only reason we were foolish enough to go to Haiti was that we had been in the military. It provided us with the confidence and ultimately the skill set to operate in that type of environment. There were a lot of well-meaning people after Haiti that wanted to help but all that they could really do was text $10 here or there to some anonymous phone number that they saw on a billboard. We were in a different situation because we’d been in situations far worse than Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Once we got on the ground, it was really natural. You planned, every day, you planned as if it were a combat operation. The stakes were equally high. Many of the threats were similar—not the same—but similar. You had a mission. Every day was mission accomplishment. Your mission wasn’t necessarily to take down a compound that the Taliban was using as a staging area, your mission was getting to an IDP [internally displaced persons] camp and treating all the wounded there and evacuating those that you couldn’t treat. And that was good; that was a good, noble mission to have. It dovetailed perfectly with the experiences that we’d had in the military.


When you were talking about Haiti, you mentioned that you went into places that other aid organizations weren’t willing to go into. How do you evaluate risk compared to other organizations, given the advanced abilities of your volunteers?

WM: One of the ways that we mitigate risk is through the use of local nationals. These are people who come to us that are vetted; they come to us through our network. In the case of Haiti it was through the Jesuits, and another religious organization for Chile. Pakistan, it was the Pakistan medical organization. No matter where it is that we go, we’re always operating through someone on the ground that’s receiving us, that we’re putting our trust and confidence in. In Haiti, for instance, when you’re operating in the hardest-hit areas of Port-au-Prince, no one has better eyes and ears, no one has better intelligence than those local nationals who live there. If you can identify some people who you can put that trust and confidence in, then they can help you manage and mitigate risk because they can tell you what parts of the city to avoid because they might be too dangerous or what bridges might be too damaged to cross. Over time, those local nationals become loyal and invested to the team and with our model, when it started, was very international. Of course, now we have the domestic focus as well. We had to rely heavily on those people and they were a face of the operation. They slept and they ate with us. They were part of the team. They were Team Rubicon themselves.

JW: I think that there’s that side of it, which is how do you mitigate the risk once you’ve actually moved to action. The other half is, how do you analyze and assess risk before you go. I think a lot of organizations get stuck on this linear concept of risk. Either the risk is low and the lowest possible hazards are not that dangerous, or the catastrophic consequences are that everybody dies. What they don’t understand is that there’s this second dimension to it, which is probability. Most people in a normal situation can assess both of those at the same time. They can say, “I drive home tonight, I could die in a fiery car crash. But the probability of that is very low, so I’m going to drive home anyway.” In a situation where it’s utter chaos and risks abound, people want to focus on those catastrophic outcomes but they don’t look at the probabilities of them actually taking place are. They also often, I won’t say always, they often find themselves doing a poor job of analyzing how they can mitigate those risks. In the case of Port-au-Prince, for example, a catastrophic outcome would have been: the local population that we were helping in a refugee camp or an I.D.P. [Internally Displaced Persons] camp turns hostile or either kidnaps or kills us. Well, because we had a lot of experience working with foreign populations that were inherently hostile to us in Iraq and Afghanistan, we knew that there were a lot of steps we could take to mitigate that. Don’t flaunt food and water; never allow the population to encircle you in 360 degrees. There are all of these things to do to avoid that to begin with. If you can assess that rapidly, and by rapidly I mean in an hour vs. a week, then you’re going to be a lot more effective.


WM: We were also talking to the people on the ground and they were telling us a different story than what government and the media were telling us. The constant media loop was that it was so dangerous; armed mobs, looting. Government sources, friends, told us that it’s too dangerous, don’t go. But the people that we were talking to on the ground in Haiti were telling us ‘you need to get here now. It’s the walking wounded, and we have a base that you can operate out of that has a perimeter fence, it has an armed sentry at the gate, it has a fresh water well.’ We took all of that and judged it that we could get to the base. We’re constantly going to be reassessing and doing our own internal OODA loop [Observe, Orient, Decide and Act] of the security situation. So it was talking to those sources down there in Port-au-Prince and relying on them because they knew, we thought that they had a lot better information than what was being reported during traditional, conventional media channels.


Let’s turn the tables. What effects do you think Team Rubicon is having on the veterans who participate? I’ve read some beautiful stories online, but I’d like to hear from you.

JW: We probably have over a hundred veteran reflections at this point. It never ceases to amaze me to have some of these veterans come up. Because I think we lose sight of it sometimes, especially now as the organization has grown and William and I and some of the rest of the HQ staff get further and further from the front lines; we’ve become those officers that we despise and that we tried to avoid when enlisting. We are that now, and so we lose some of that intimate connection to the power that it has. So it’s always really amazing when one of these veterans will pull us aside and say “this has saved my life” or “this has given me new life.” at times, because we try not to take ourselves too seriously, we’re like “really?” “Like, this? This ramshackle group of yahoos has changed your life? Sorry!” It happened during Hurricane Sandy. We had a gentleman grab both of us at the same time and say “I was medically discharged from the army in 2006 after breaking my back in Iraq and I’ve been drinking myself to death alone on a ranch in Arizona ever since then and finding out about Team Rubicon was the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me because it’s given me a new lease on life. I mean, wow, right? That’s just… Now it’s about: how can we make that more substantive and real? How can we make sure that, in between disasters, that continues? That sense of pride, and mission, and community remains. That’s one of our biggest challenges right now, is providing that 365 days a year instead of 20.

WM: So let me set it up for you. When you join the military, you joining to be part of something bigger than yourself. You have a mission, you have a purpose and you’re very proud about that. But when you get out, it all becomes about you. You need to get a job, a family. It’s all about “I, I, I.” It’s very foreign to the veterans. So they’re still looking for an opportunity to give back and those opportunities, there are plenty of opportunities to give back but what’s an opportunity that veterans truly want to do, that will truly give them purpose. There’s this study that this organization called civic enterprises did in 2008. They asked veterans, when you take off the uniform do you want to continue to serve? 92% of them said yes, we do. They asked them what and the top 2 responses were helping your fellow veterans and disaster response. So it really fits, the duality of our mission.


William, you mentioned that you walked into an embassy to get permission to go to Haiti. I think it’s interesting that you cut through the red tape to a certain extent, and took a path that a lot of nonprofits wouldn’t consider, because there are “channels.” What spurred you to do that? Do you continue to do that? Are you now at this stage where you don’t need to do that anymore?

WM: It was part bluff, because we weren’t even an NGO. I used to be the secretary of the Marine Corps intelligence association and that was, at the time, the sponsoring organization for Team Rubicon. We used the legitimacy, whatever legitimacy there is, of that organization to get us these letters. It was really an up selling or overselling of our capabilities, but just being confident about it. I think they were in such dire need that they took me seriously. That is something that worked very well at that point. We didn’t really even need those letters. We only needed them a couple times, like when we had teams going through border checkpoints in the middle of the night. We had one [checkpoint] where he flashed that when he was leaving and the checkpoint was closed. They read that and they were like “oh” and opened up the border. What it provided was, when I met this guy Mark Hayword, this Special Forces medic, on the tarmac on the way from Washington, D.C. down to the Dominican Republic, he took us a lot more seriously because we had that. It gave a lot of legitimacy to the team. Moving forward, we’re not really working

We use all means in order to get into locations of the world, not just U.S. government channels. I think typically U.S. government channels might overburden.

JW: To add on to that, something that you said [about cutting] through the red tape and avoid standard channels like other NGOs might do, that goes back to this idea of mission accomplishment and the whole veteran mindset. There were so many roadblocks that presented themselves before we even purchased tickets to the Dominican Republic or decided to go to Haiti that would have stopped so many people because common sense would have said, “hey, they shut down the airport in Port-au-Prince. Ok, you can’t go.” No, fly to the Dominican Republic it’s the same goddamn island. And then we’ll drive across the border checkpoint “oh well the border checkpoint is being controlled and they’re only letting qualified personnel across the border.” I’m going to go to the embassy and get a letter of recommendation from the Haitian ambassador. It was that mindset of overcoming obstacles that presented themselves that made a difference early on.

WM: That’s exactly what it is, that’s a great answer. Generally speaking for veterans, it’s not taking no for an answer. I found myself in a lot of situations in my government career where a roadblock was put in front of me and I’d have to come up and do something totally unconventional to get past it. I think veterans in general really have that spirit of innovation. We’re seeing it play out, because like Jake said, we’re no longer on the front lines of our operation. It’s other guys while we play more of a supporting role in order to make it all happen. It’s those that are veterans on the ground, the tip of the spear right now, that are innovating, like we’re doing with our Palantir partnership.


Now, I could see a world in which demand for Team Rubicon outpaces supply, in terms of thinking about really bad natural disasters and perhaps fewer veterans. Do you think the model of veterans leading civilians could be expanded?

JW: I think it’s a balance. We’ve had veterans say that they’re more interested working alongside other veterans and they would actually prefer that than leading teams of unaffiliated volunteers. We’ve also had the other way around, we’ve had veterans say “I love being in charge of all of these people again, makes me feel like a squad leader again for better or worse!” But ultimately the efficiency comes from being that force multiplier. From having ten veterans who can lead 250 people versus 10 veterans who themselves can only do the work of 10 people. I think that makes a lot of sense. But to your point, boy, that’s a really scary world if we actually have so many disasters that it actually outpaces what 10 million vets can do. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point.

WM: The other thing is, we’ve had veterans from other countries talk to us about exporting the Team Rubicon model. Let’s say for a moment that we do, that we expand internationally one day and we create a Team Rubicon Norway. Six Norwegian military veterans flew in from Oslo to take part in the hurricane sandy response because they’re interested in doing just that. If you expand this model around the world, you have an unlimited amount. Many countries have compulsory military service. In Israel, every man and woman serves. In the Scandinavian country, every man serves. You have a talent pool… the sky’s the limit.

JW: Logistically, you have multiple launch points and language skills that are coming to the table.

WM: What if you could bring that all together under one roof? Right now we’re so focused on doing this, but that does excite me too [gestures in two directions].

Speaking of staff, I know there are plenty of students who are fascinated by your organization. How can students get involved?

WM: Yeah, during the summer, we had a couple students from Harvard spend the summer. So yeah we are looking for people, good students who can be part of Team Rubicon in an internship capacity. There is no shortage of work. Another way [to get involved] is to work with student veterans and just spreading the word about veterans’ issues. This isn’t as much on the disaster response side as it is raising awareness about the issues that veterans face, including this figure that shocks everyone: 22 military veterans a day commit suicide. It’s a national emergency and it’s just not being given enough attention.


Do you still get to go out on operations?

JW: I’ve been flat out told that I’m no longer qualified for half of our operations.

Why is that?

JW: “Jake, you’re not a medic, Jake you’re not this, Jake, you’ve never taken this course.” Goddamnit guys, can I play the president card here? No? No, that doesn’t work either? F*ck my life. We do every once in a while. But you know what’s a really good feeling? Most recently, in Georgia, we responded to a tornado, three, four weeks ago in Adairsville, Georgia north of Atlanta. I just happened to be in Atlanta for personal reasons so I was able to go up and see the team. The only value I brought tot hat whole situation was bringing the coffee. That was actually a really good feeling. It was really cool to see the machine working, humming along, and doing far better than I could have done. Now we’ve brought in people. We’re not disaster professionals, we’re not emergency managers, that’s not what we do. To a degree the training we had in the military allows us to do it but there’s another level of it that we can really use to harness the skills of the veterans and I saw that in action down in Adairsville and was like, “this is cool”: the fact that I’m not running around putting out fires right now and I can just watch this in action. Felt good. Felt really, really good. I was like, “hey what can I do for ya?” “Ahh stay out of the way!” All right, I’ll just sit over here and drink coffee and watch and snap an iPhone photo or two so that people will really believe I was there.




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