McShan, Ortega, Luis Rocha….Clay Hunt.
In 2008, my unit redeployed home to the US after a bloody tour in Afghanistan, during which we lost 20 men, suffered 30 amputations, and took over one hundred casualties. The names I just read, however, weren’t among those grim statistics. No, the names I just read are the names of the men we’ve lost in the last four years; names of the men we’ve lost in peace.
The last name, Clay Hunt, belongs to my dear friend and sniper partner. Clay was a good man, a great Marine, and an incredible humanitarian. Clay helped me start an organization called Team Rubicon—a nonprofit that is using the skills and experiences of returning war veterans for continued service in natural disasters. My cofounder and I launched Team Rubicon after the Haiti earthquake, arriving within days to provide medical triage in the hardest hit areas of Port au Prince; essentially using the principles of Counter-Insurgency warfare to mitigate risk, move quickly, gain the trust of an unstable populace, and render critical aid.
It was in Clay’s suicide, however, that we realized a critical truth: Team Rubicon is more than a disaster response organization. Rather, it is a veteran service organization that is using disasters as an opportunity for veterans to regain what they’ve lost since the military. Ladies and gentlemen, many will come and testify here today that jobs, or education, or access to healthcare is what will keep our nation’s warriors from killing themselves here at home. I’m going to argue that it is much simpler.
You see, returning from a decade long war that has suffered from ambiguous direction, an unclear mission, and a disengaged public takes a toll on young men and women. Most are deployed and asked to sacrifice much of themselves, and they do day after day.
Imagine for a moment an 18 year old boy in Omaha, Nebraska. That 18 year old boy graduates high school and joins the Army. The Army sends him to boot camp and gives him a rifle. Later he deploys to Iraq and is promoted to Sergeant. This young man spends twelve months in Iraq, and every day he leads his men outside the wire on a mission to pacify the countryside and protect his country. He has purpose. Every night, back inside the wire, he checks on his men, ensuring they have what they need. They laugh together, they cry together. He has a community. Twelve months later his unit returns home. The young boy, now a man, walks through the airport in his uniform and is slapped on the back and thanked from all around. He has an identity. Only months later the man leaves the Army and returns home to Omaha, Nebraska. He gets a job and reconnects with old high school friends. Soon, however, he discovers a void—things just aren’t the same. No job can replace the purpose he once felt. Distant high school friends simply cannot understand or replace the community he has left behind. And no mechanics overalls or pinstripe suit will ever give him the identity he felt while serving.
He is not whole. And now, left to his own devices, he questions his war because all around him question it. He now finds himself trying to justify the lives lost, the lives taken, and the moral code he inevitably compromised. For some this is the most difficult part because the mission may no longer feel noble, the threat no longer imminent.
We at Team Rubicon believe that the foundation to a healthy transition is those three simple concepts: Purpose, Community and Identity. By providing veterans with a new, noble mission—helping those afflicted by disasters—veterans not only help their neighbors, they help themselves.
Through disaster response our veterans find a new method of employing the skills they learned for war. They raise their right hand and let their communities know that when disasters strike they will, once again, lace up their boots and answer the call. They look around themselves and discover a new band of brothers; men and women with a similar ethos and desire for community. Lastly, they wear our t-shirt with pride; a pride of belonging to something bigger than themselves. If done right, we can make them feel whole.
In addition to Team Rubicon, I have cofounded a tech company called POS REP, or Position Report. POS REP was also inspired by Clay Hunt, when, at his funeral, I discovered that Clay had lived within 10 miles of three Marines we’d served with in Iraq—he just hadn’t known it. Frustrated with the VA and DOD’s inability to connect veterans with one another after they leave the service, we set out to solve the problem using the most ubiquitous tool on the planet—our smartphones.
Using the GPS capability of smartphones, we have created an application exclusively for military veterans. It connects veterans not only to the veterans they already know, but more importantly it helps them discover and communicate with the unseen network of veterans around them, unlocking a peer support network that we all know is critical to stemming the tide of suicide. It also serves as a unifying platform for veteran service organizations, helping numerous nonprofits reach veterans in order to provide services.
In later versions we hope to help veterans connect with government resources based on their proximity to those resources, and needs indicated within their profile. The app can serve as a hyper-local, veteran version of “Yelp,” however, to do so requires cooperation with the federal and state government, which has proven to be tremendously cumbersome for a young, underfunded startup.
In closing, it is my humble opinion that at the root of this issue lays three core things: purpose, community and identity. Team Rubicon is working to provide all three of those through a new, exciting mission in disaster response, and POS REP is looking to create offline communities through innovative online discovery tools.
Thank you for your time.
Table of Contents