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Hundreds of vets lend a hand in Sandy relief

The official New York City Veterans Day festivities take place Sunday in Manhattan, but members of Team Rubicon have been holding their own parade in Queens for the last week.

These volunteers — all skilled U.S. veterans — have been walking the main routes of the Rockaways, having traded their camouflage for uniforms of dirty jeans and group-issued T-shirts. The streets are clogged for their procession — but with storm surge sand and downed tree limbs, the remnants of SuperStorm Sandy and the nor’easter that arrived a week later.

Almost 400 veterans have joined the disaster relief organization’s efforts in the region, helping with search and rescue, shelter setup, aid logistics and basic cleanup.

“It’s our biggest effort to date,” said William McNulty, co-founder of Team Rubicon. “The size and the scale of the damage down there is so huge. There are still blocks down there that haven’t seen much help. So we’re doing all we can to get to them.”

The group formed in 2010, with the goal of creating a rapid-response disaster relief team of U.S. veterans. They’ve sent volunteers to Haiti to work alongside Marines in earthquake recovery efforts; cleanup crews to Missouri and Texas after tornadoes; and evacuation teams to Louisiana after several hurricane landings.

Team Rubicon is established in the relief world, coordinating its efforts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state emergency response officials.

Matt Pelak, director of strategic partnerships for the group, said the group wants to be the go-to for difficult missions: “We know we can get them done, and quickly.”

The veterans get a chance to revisit the experiences that shaped them in the military and be part of a team on a mission.

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And Team Rubicon makes the most of those military connections. Veterans are uniquely suited for hard-to-handle disaster response jobs because of their military skills and discipline.

“They’re used to adapting and overcoming any problem, usually in much more dangerous situations than these,” Pelak said. “They’ve worked with limited supplies and uncomfortable conditions. They’ve been trained to solve problems quickly.”

Veterans also have natural leadership skills, Pelak said. That’s important in situations like the Rockaways, where many community members want to help their neighbors but are unsure where to start.

Team Rubicon crews there have been setting up missions, plotting plans of attack and coordinating work with locals and other aid workers. For example, one group of workers gets sand off the street while another clears out a block’s worth of flooded basements.

At night, the veterans share space with evacuees at local shelters.

It’s exhausting and unpleasant work, but Pelak said, “Our veterans love this, and they keep coming back for more. We have to tell them when to stop working, or they’ll keep going all night.”

That sense of mission and purpose is another driving force behind the organization, McNulty said.

“We hear from guys who still have a desire to serve, but they don’t have an outlet for that now that they’ve left the military,” he said. “It’s a chance to be part of a team again, to be part of something bigger than yourself.”

McNulty said after each day’s work, volunteers gather for a wrap-up session: part after-action report, part lessons learned, part personal reflection. The results are both practical and moving.

Last week, veteran Rob Ulrey, team leader for the group’s relief efforts in Brick, N.J., shared his wrap-up report online, and his excitement of recapturing the feeling of his days in the Army.

“Our line of vehicles resembled a military convoy we all once knew,” he wrote: “Our precision, attention to detail, and willingness to work in austere conditions with no specific information paralleled a life we once lived. It all seemed to be coming back to us now, the esprit de corps, the caring for one another and watching our sixes.”

Pelak said the response from disaster victims who learn that veterans are providing aid is overwhelming.

“They see these veterans back in the community, and they see that they still have an important place there,” he said. “One elderly woman our guys were helping in Missouri found out they were veterans, and she told them, ‘Now I know what angels look like.’ ”

The group has a volunteer database of about 5,000 veterans throughout the country, on call for any disaster. McNulty said a small corps of group leaders checks credentials, then preps volunteers when an event occurs.

For the East Coast efforts, that meant flying people and power tools across the country at a moment’s notice. Eventually, the organization hopes to have prestocked response trucks positioned across the country, but that will take more time and money.

Officials had to delay a Team Rubicon fundraising gala in Los Angeles so they could respond to the New York/New Jersey disaster, and they relocated the L.A. headquarters staff 2,500 miles east to coordinate the work.

Team Rubicon hasn’t set an end date for their work around the region. Many homes are still too storm-damaged to occupy, and many communities have basic infrastructure needs.

“We’ll be there as long as we need to be,” Pelak said, “as long as we have veterans who want to work.”

For more information on Team Rubicon — how to volunteer or donate — visit their website.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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