Wood in Detroit in May.
Wood in Detroit in May.
Wood in Detroit in May. (Andrew Renneisen )

The Future of Disaster Relief Isn’t the Red Cross

Team Rubicon began in 2010 with a unique dual mission: providing disaster relief and giving struggling American veterans a vital sense of purpose. The program has a reputation for ignoring best practices and obliterating red tape, and it has already disrupted the aid industry. Now founder Jake Wood wants to take on the Red Cross.

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Jake Wood founded Team Rubicon a year after returning from Afghanistan, where he served as a Marine sniper. It was January 12, 2010. Wood, then 26, was in boxers on his couch in Burbank, California, when, 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a previously unmapped fault line ruptured. The resulting 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed at least 160,000 people and displaced one million more. By week’s end, Wood was in the disaster zone, helping to splint the compound fracture of a 14-year-old girl and curing his post-deployment boredom with the comfort of chaos.

Wood didn’t go to Haiti alone. He spent the first four days after the quake assembling a team of eight volunteers, including two doctors, Team Rubicon cofounder William McNulty, a former intelligence contractor in Iraq, and Mark Hayward, a retired Army Special Forces medic. While Wood hustled in Burbank, McNulty, a compulsive and gifted organizer who lived in Washington, D.C., got permission from a contact at the Haitian embassy for the loose-knit team to transport medical narcotics and perform what amounted to a special-ops aid mission. McNulty, then 32, also used his connections as a Jesuit to set up a base of operations at a seminary in the disaster zone. 

Five days after the quake, as most established nonprofits stood back and waited for Haiti to stabilize, the team flew to the neighboring Dominican Republic ahead of their larger shipment of narcotics. They carried with them just a few duffel bags full of medical supplies. From there they hitched a ride to Port-au-Prince with a 70-year-old expat whose belt buckle was engraved with John Wayne’s face.

The destruction wasn’t obvious until they reached the city’s outskirts. Rubble choked the streets. Crowds of homeless huddled beneath palm trees and drooping power lines. The few remaining buildings looked like they could be knocked over by a stiff wind. Still, with the stench of decomposing bodies heavy in the tropical heat, the team wished a breeze would blow. In some ways, what they encountered was worse than the war zones they’d seen. The earthquake spared no one. 

Wood doesn't like the idea of Team Rubicon members picturing him in a  suit. “I was the first volunteer. Now I've become that which I loathe: an officer in the rear.”

The next day, Team Rubicon saw 220 patients. “It was Civil War medicine,” McNulty recalls. They diagnosed some victims’ gangrene just from the smell. One patient needed his hand amputated, but with no bone saws available, they sent him to the hospital along with a man who’d been trapped beneath rubble for three days and was dying of internal bleeding. 

These patients were typical. One four-year-old boy was not. “The kid’s memorable because he’s the only one who screams,” Hayward wrote in his journal. “But then again, his leg wounds are extensive and we don’t have any anesthetics. Or narcotics. Or IVs.” They were already running out of antibiotics.

On day three, the team took over the city’s biggest emergency room. The facility was operating with just nurses and volunteers—no doctors. Supplies had dwindled so much that the only pain relief came from ibuprofen and a clean pair of socks to bite down on. Wood and McNulty wept at the devastation, then fumed at the pace of the response. The Red Cross and most other large NGOs wouldn’t establish for another week. 

More infuriating was the fate of the 150 cartons of medical supplies Team Rubicon had flown to Port-au-Prince. By the time they arrived, the U.S. military had a resource base set up at the airport and was controlling the flow of supplies into Haiti. With armed gangs rumored to be seizing and hoarding food, water, and medicine, the Army refused to release Team Rubicon’s pallets until it deemed the situation safe. That could take weeks or longer. Many patients didn’t have hours. McNulty stormed into the base and demanded the release of his pallets. “You’re an NGO,” a major told him. “You come under my jurisdiction. And I need the supplies.”

McNulty enlisted a group of locals, walked into the supply cache in his battle-worn fatigues, and carried Team Rubicon’s stockpile to the hospital. Still shaking with adrenaline, he typed out an update for Team Rubicon’s followers on Wood’s blog, Jake’s Life. Amid torrents of curse words was an oft repeated phrase: “Bureaucracy is killing people.”

It was January 2016, and Wood, now 32, sat at the VIP table in a packed Hilton ballroom overlooking the Pacific and the 18th hole of the Torrey Pines Golf Course. He and 150 top-performing insurance agents had come to La Jolla, California, for the Farmer’s Insurance Open, a stop on the PGA Tour. For many of the agents, this was the trip of the year. For Wood, it was another day of grinding on the Team Rubicon fundraising circuit. The CEO had delivered 20 speeches in the past six months, even appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. After his last presentation, at a real estate conference in Orlando, he raised $275,000.

Wood in Haiti.
Wood in Haiti. (Jeff Lang)

“If I have to eat another plate of Hilton scrambled eggs, I’m going to fucking throw up,” he joked with Jeff Dailey, the CEO of Farmers. Then Bill Macatee, the CBS sports broadcaster and event emcee, called Wood to the stage. Six-foot-six and trim, he took the mic in a tailored suit and warmed up the crowd with a series of football jokes—he played offensive lineman for the University of Wisconsin—before delivering a sharp TED-style talk. The focus: how he harnessed veterans’ battlefield skills to form the country’s fastest-growing disaster-aid organization. 

In the six years since the team’s ad hoc mission to Haiti, Team Rubicon has expanded to include 47 full-time employees and more than 35,000 volunteers, about three-quarters of whom are veterans. Each month another 800 people sign up. Team Rubicon now has global reach, with a robust UK brand and plans to open offices in Germany, Norway, and Australia. Former CIA director David Petraeus is on its board of directors. So are retired general Stanley McChrystal and former New York Stock Exchange CEO Duncan Niederauer. Team Rubicon was the subject of a recent book, Charlie Mike, by Joe Klein. And last year, its operational budget reached $8.2 million, up $300,000 from the previous year.

Its mission, like that of many relief organizations, is to help people in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. But Wood’s stump speech highlighted a secondary goal that has enabled Team Rubicon to tap into such a rich fundraising vein: addressing the mental-health crisis plaguing American veterans in the wake of two wars. The military provides soldiers with purpose; returning home often leaves them adrift. That struggle to reconnect is one reason that 50 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide. “What if we build an organization of 2.5 million veterans into something good?” Wood said, pacing the stage as he related Team Rubicon’s post-Haiti inception tale. 

While the organization is experiencing tremendous growth, there aren’t enough natural catastrophes to keep all its volunteers consistently engaged. Last year, just 1,374 of the team’s 33,000 registered members deployed to 38 disasters. Dependence on nature’s fury for work puts Wood in a tough place: As thousands more volunteers sign on each year, and the cash keeps pouring in, can he find a sustainable formula to keep his veterans busy? Succeeding will require elbowing into a crowded field of established relief organizations, dominated by powerful brands such as the Red Cross, all looking to do similar work. 

With his face projected on three oversize TV monitors, Wood delivered a 20-minute speech that tracked his personal narrative from football player to soldier to CEO, slowly building to his ultimate pitch. “We set out to build an organization with an unlimited ability to scale,” he said. “We set out to build the best disaster-aid organization in the world. We’re gonna build a better mousetrap.”

The insurance agents applauded and leaped to their feet.

After Wood’s talk, we sat down for drinks in overstuffed chairs at the Hilton bar. I asked if he always wore a suit. “Fuck off,” Wood said, as playful as he was serious. He sees himself as the embodiment of the Team Rubicon brand, and he’s self-conscious about how he’s portrayed. Tall, dark haired, and slim, Wood looks like a GQ model, which no doubt helped him win the magazine’s Better Men Better World search in 2011. But when he’s not fundraising, he tries to project a blue-collar image and doesn’t like the idea of Team Rubicon members picturing him in a suit. “I was the first volunteer,” he reminded me. “Now I’ve become that which I loathe: an officer in the rear.”

“I know I didn't kill Clay,” Wood  said, “but I didn't do what I owed him.”

Wood’s manner suggests that the world is delivering him all its great promise. In many ways it has. He was born into a wealthy Iowa family and earned a football scholarship at a Division One college. Wood was enamored with the Marines since he was a kid. Inspired by Pat Tillman, the NFL player who joined the Army Rangers and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, Wood eschewed the officer track and enlisted as a “door kicker” in 2005. After four years in combat boots, he left the service in 2009 with the Navy and Marine Commendation Medal, with added distinction for actions taken under fire. Since founding Team Rubicon, he has met three presidents, married CNN weatherwoman Indra Petersons, and briefly pursued an MBA at UCLA. 

Team Rubicon exists, however, because Wood is still deeply scarred by his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He spent most of 2007 as an infantryman in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, in an exceptionally dangerous region west of Baghdad. Three weeks into his first deployment, an IED detonated under the lead vehicle in his convoy. His sergeant rolled out of the truck with shrapnel the size of an orange embedded in his calf, and the 25-year-old Wood found himself in command. After 22 weeks in Iraq, he reenlisted and attended Marine sniper school. “My graduation present was a ticket to the Helmund Valley in Afghanistan,” Wood said. He served his next tour with the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, which saw frequent and heavy combat. Twenty of Wood’s fellow Marines died. Twenty-two lost limbs.

Not long after his mission to Haiti, Wood started at UCLA, but he soon found that business school lacked the clarity of purpose he knew in the military. Aid work filled that need. Within a year of the earthquake, he and various combinations of Team Rubicon’s original eight, plus others from its rapidly expanding volunteer base, deployed to an earthquake in Chile (February 2010), flooding in Pakistan (August 2010), and refugee crises in Burma (August 2010) and Sudan (February 2011). The focus was exclusively on high-profile international missions. Wood and McNulty’s message was that Team Rubicon was ushering in “a new paradigm of disaster response and veteran reintegration.”

Key to that goal was not knowing—or else willfully ignoring—the aid industry’s best practices. When McNulty secured Team Rubicon’s supplies in Haiti, it was the first act in a vigilante approach that would define the organization for its first few years. In the Philippines, Pakistan, and Sudan, volunteers ignored USAID’s instructions to attend coordination meetings and instead delivered food and medicine wherever it was needed. “We flipped the bird at anybody who told us to play by the rules,” one early volunteer told me proudly. 

Their freelancing helped people quickly. It also led to scattershot relief and complicated things for bigger organizations trying to establish long-term programs on the ground. Locals wondered, How come that village got help from Team Rubicon and we have to wait for USAID or the Red Cross? Within aid circles, this became known as the Team Rubicon problem.

The media, meanwhile, loved Team Rubicon’s story. When Wood was in the military, he started his popular Jake’s Life blog, which attracted somewhere around 10,000 daily readers before the Haiti mission and 25,000 by the end of it. That, along with on-the-ground coverage in Port-au-Prince from CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a scrum of smaller news outlets, helped put the organization on the map. As the early missions piled up, Team Rubicon’s efforts would earn coverage from People, Time, National Geographic, and NPR. Wood and McNulty capitalized smartly, taking in more than $140,000 while in Haiti and $275,000 total by year’s end. Early on, Wood didn’t think of aid work as a career. But on March 30, 2011, something happened that changed his feelings about Team Rubicon: one of Wood’s best friends, Clay Hunt, shot himself while alone in his Houston apartment.

Team Rubicon member Scott Seager listens closely to the breathing of an Ecuadorian child in Bahia, Ecuador.
Team Rubicon member Scott Seager listens closely to the breathing of an Ecuadorian child in Bahia, Ecuador. (Jonathen E. Davis / Team Rubicon)

Hunt was Team Rubicon’s ninth volunteer. He and Wood graduated sniper school together and both deployed to Afghanistan. Though Hunt couldn’t make the initial flight to Haiti, he showed up a few days later, locating Team Rubicon with GPS coordinates pulled from a photo on Wood’s blog. After that he was a dedicated member, going on two more missions while wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Hunt’s trouble had started when an enemy sniper put a bullet through his wrist in Iraq in 2007. The injury hurt but not as much as being sent home early: Hunt felt like he’d abandoned his unit. Once home and healed, Hunt lobbied Congress for more aid money for veterans while struggling to get the VA to help him with his PTSD. 

Of the first Haiti trip, Hunt wrote, “I found a renewed sense of purpose for myself that has been missing since I separated from the USMC.” He grew addicted to the high that aid work provided. After each of his three Team Rubicon deployments, he sank deeper into depression. 

“Everybody says don’t blame yourself, but that’s bullshit,” Wood told me in the Hilton bar. “Truthfully, as Clay got worse in the months preceding his death, I pushed him further away, because I was like, Dude, you’re bringing me down. Fix yourself.” Hunt’s suicide sent Wood crashing through his own survivor’s guilt and PTSD, which he’s still struggling with. 

“I know I didn’t kill Clay, but I didn’t do what I owed him,” Wood said. He concluded that if Team Rubicon had offered Hunt more opportunities to engage, his best friend would still be alive. “I mean, I think about it every day,” he continued, looking past me. “Still. And some days, I think long and hard and get really disappointed in myself. You know, the sad reality is that Clay’s death had a significantly positive impact on the organization.”

Hunt’s Texas family is wealthy and well connected. In his obituary, his parents asked friends to remember their son—and to prevent more deaths like his—by donating to Team Rubicon; $20,000 poured in. Two weeks after Hunt’s funeral, Wood decided to make Team Rubicon his job. He dove into the grunt work of building a full-time operation. 

“Seems like every month I get a call—another dead guy,” he told me. Wood’s 1,200-man Marine unit is nicknamed the Forgotten Battalion, because Hunt is just one of its 15 postwar suicides to date, more than any other unit in the U.S. military. “Four weeks ago, we had another guy commit suicide. Two days after that, I’m starting to get frantic phone calls.” A member of the unit had just swallowed 200 pills and was driving north toward Santa Barbara at 70 miles an hour. “He ends up passing out at the wheel. Runs off the road. Crashes his car. Law enforcement pumps his stomach on the side of the road and saves his life. That’s the type of shit that’s happening to my unit.”

Most Americans forgot about the October 2015 floods that hit Columbia, South Carolina, soon after the disaster dropped out of the news cycle. Most Columbians are still dealing with the aftermath. Over a period of 48 hours, the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin dropped two feet of rain on the state’s low country. Authorities estimated that 28,000 homes were damaged statewide. It was a medium-size disaster in terms of sheer numbers and exactly the kind of situation Team Rubicon had positioned itself to handle. 

It called its clean-up effort Operation Palmetto Punch. Even before the waters rose, a Team Rubicon coordinator in South Carolina used volunteer-generated intelligence reports to estimate how much manpower was needed and where. He sent e-mails asking local and regional volunteers to stand by. Then the storm slammed into the eastern seaboard. North and South Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia all declared a state of emergency. When the waters receded, 129 Team Rubicon members volunteered in South Carolina, many traveling from out of state using free plane tickets that Southwest Airlines donated to the organization. Volunteers got a cot and a patch of hardwood floor at South Carolina’s State Guard logistics headquarters, as well as warm meals prepared by Tyson Foods.

On a bright and cloudless morning, ten days after the storm, I headed out on a relief assignment with Jimmy Lovett, a Kentucky native and first-year Team Rubicon member. The Grateful Dead’s “Caution” played on the car stereo as we entered South Beltline, a middle-class neighborhood of 150 homes. A stream you can usually straddle had flooded it. Clutches of volunteers in Day-Glo safety vests moved about like bumblebees drawn to debris. A dozen worked at one home that had a pile of wet clothes, a red Volvo, and a grand piano out front. DANGER DANGER DANGER was spray-painted on the red-brick facade of another house, and a third had an X painted on a second-floor window. “Put there by a search-and-rescue guy in a boat,” Lovett said. “This is giving me flashbacks for real.”

“I think it's right for Team Rubicon to move in,” says Charity Navigator's Sandra Miniutti. “It's solution is unique. It's vision is compelling.”

Lovett, 36, spent his twenties working as a rescue swimmer on a Navy H60 helicopter. He deployed to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and remembered returning to base to refuel while victims on rooftops used flashlights to signal SOS. That story prompted a nod of understanding from other Team Rubicon members. It wasn’t all that exceptional. In the group was a Navy veteran who talked about riding out hundred-foot waves on an aircraft carrier. One vet was a personal aide to a four-star general who helped draft the U.S. response to Pakistan’s devastating 2010 floods; another was a former Special Forces medic who survived three IED blasts in Iraq and had a German shepherd named Emma that woke him from night tremors by jumping on his chest. Every volunteer I talked with agreed that tearing down mold-covered walls with fellow veterans grounded them in a way they hadn’t experienced since leaving the service. 

After Hunt’s death, Team Rubicon shifted its focus to domestic operations and started playing by the rules. As frustrating as regulations can be, Wood explained that they also make the work steadier, so Team Rubicon can help more victims and volunteers. Since 2011, members have deployed to more than 125 disasters and provided, according to FEMA metrics, $7 million in aid. But Team Rubicon’s renegade early years still define its culture. For service-minded veterans with beards, a knack for creative cussing, and a need for adventure, it’s far cooler to be a vigilante aid worker than a do-gooder with the Red Cross, even if you’re doing the same work. That attitude is why more than a few members in Columbia sported tattoos of Team Rubicon’s logo, and why the organization provides what many veterans lose after leaving the military—a sense of identity. 

Another key difference between today and the early years is more training. Before volunteers deployed to Columbia, Team Rubicon paid for each one to spend several hours taking a disaster-response course online. The small team of experienced members who organized logistics, operations, finances, and safety there had all taken specialized classes through FEMA.

But playing nice wasn’t helping Team Rubicon find enough work in South Beltline. Six other nonprofits were operating in the neighborhood. Team Rubicon had only one house to muck out. In search of more to do, Lovett stopped by a distribution center that had sprung up in the yard of a destroyed home. Donations littered the tent city, and local Mormon volunteers were sorting toothbrushes for distribution. 

A trash truck drove up. “They’ve pulled two million tons of stuff from South Beltline alone,” a woman whose house had been flooded told Lovett. She didn’t think they needed more help. “Maybe come back this afternoon?” she suggested.

Lovett, who was getting frustrated, had heard that many times over the past week. Another woman pulled him aside. Her husband had served as an infantryman in Iraq and was suffering from PTSD. His friends would come over a few nights a week and they’d drink until the memories faded. She was worried about what would happen next. 

“Tell him to come by the base,” Lovett said, leaning over to grab her arm. He gave her the address. “Tell him that Team Rubicon needs his help.”

Finding opportunities to help out was challenging on all three days I spent in Columbia. It’s a reality of the disaster-relief industry. The Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, a sort of trade union that facilitates nonprofit collaboration, has 114 larger member groups, and there are thousands of smaller unaffiliated ones. The Red Cross, a VOAD member, provides food and shelter. Operation BBQ Relief, which is not, provides grilled meat. Both were in Columbia, along with several thousand volunteers from dozens of other organizations. Best intentions and goodwill reign in the wake of disasters, but competition among nonprofits can be surprisingly fierce. Despite the best efforts of the local VOAD to coordinate all the jobs, some organizations neglect to share information just to keep their own members busy.

“It’s a big problem,” says Patrick Roberts, who teaches disaster response at Virginia Tech. “There are thousands of people running around, often competing to provide services and get press and donations for their work. The victims aren’t quite sure who provides what service or the quality they’ll receive. Sometimes the VOADs cause more harm than help.”

Team Rubicon member Tim Fortney looks for valuables lost underneath the rubble.
Team Rubicon member Tim Fortney looks for valuables lost underneath the rubble. (Jonathen E. Davis / Team Rubicon)

A poorly kept secret in the aid industry is that it’s as much about volunteers’ experience as it is about helping victims—church camp in a disaster zone. Service produces huge psychological and physical benefits for volunteers, including reduced depression, a greater sense of purpose, even longer lives, all of which arguably outweigh whatever logistical inconvenience volunteers may cause.

That’s especially true when the volunteers are veterans, but Wood insists his organization isn’t looking for favors. His case for cutting to the front of the line is that Team Rubicon does a better job. “We have to scale to a point that our brand is synonymous with the disaster-relief industry,” Wood told me. He pointed out that the Red Cross is the only organization with rights to that claim, adding, “That’s because it’s never had any serious competition.” One of his long-term goals is to unseat it, or at least become a viable alternative.

“I think it’s right for Team Rubicon to move in,” says Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing at Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits for potential donors. “Its solution is unique. Its vision is compelling. We’ve certainly seen a lot of criticism of America’s other disaster-relief programs.”

Miniutti is referring to last fall’s devastating stories from NPR and ProPublica that slammed the Red Cross’s efforts in Haiti. After the earthquake, the organization raised half a billion dollars. Though it claimed to have helped 4.5 million people, the report highlighted a number of apparent failures, including the fact that the organization constructed just six homes. The Red Cross said the homes were part of a pilot project designed to test its long-term shelter plans and pointed out that it still helped 132,000 people. But the criticism redirected some checks from the Red Cross to Team Rubicon. 

Team Rubicon is also poised to capitalize on recent negative press regarding the Wounded Warrior Project. Founded in 2000, the fundraising giant took in $372 million last year. Then, in January, The New York Times took its leadership to task for spending lavishly to make that haul possible, including dropping $500 a night on hotels for staffers and hosting an employees-only weekend conference in Colorado Springs that cost more than $1 million. The board fired its CEO in March, and Wounded Warrior remains in full tailspin. A few deep-pocketed donors I talked with said they had pulled funding from the group and were now giving exclusively to Team Rubicon.

When asked about both controversies, Wood rolled his eyes at the Red Cross but praised the Wounded Warrior Project. (The latter helps fund Team Rubicon with a five-year grant totaling $9 million.) Wood said he’s aware that fundraising can sometimes eclipse an organization’s initial mission, but Team Rubicon is still aggressively seeking more capital. “There’s a million things more important than money, and they all cost money,” he likes to say. Charity Navigator doesn’t begin rating a nonprofit until it’s been in operation for seven years. Still, Miniutti sees no reason for concern about Team Rubicon’s current financials: it costs the organization just five cents to raise a dollar (the Red Cross spends 23 cents and Wounded Warrior 27), it’s transparent about its financials and long-term plans, and employee salaries are ample enough to attract talent yet not excessive. (In 2014, Wood earned $120,000, which is nearly half the salary of chief executives at nonprofits with comparable budgets.) Miniutti, however, does point to the organization’s need to focus on its mission amid so much growth. “To survive and thrive, they need to keep their eye on the ball and be clear about what outcomes they’re working toward,” she said.

In February, I visited Team Rubicon’s Los Angeles headquarters. It’s two miles from the airport, in an office park full of glass-walled buildings. Across the street are Northrup Grumman and China Air. That week staffers from around the country had flown in for the State of the TR Nation, a meeting to discuss the organization’s explosive growth. 

During my visit, Team Rubicon was wrapping up one operation (in Flint, Michigan, where 14 volunteers swapped out water-purification systems to deal with the lead-poisoning crisis) and ramping up its efforts on another (a flood cleanup in Oklahoma). Still, the organization’s effort to refocus on domestic disasters hadn’t yet produced the surge of member engagement that Wood hoped for. Volunteers sign up to participate en masse only for marquee events like Hurricane Sandy, where nearly 350 Team Rubicon members helped muck out New York homes. Smaller events, like a Wyoming wildfire that burned 44 houses last fall, or an Oklahoma tornado that tore through the corner of a trailer park this spring, fail to attract many volunteers outside of the organization’s dedicated core. With no big national disasters on the horizon, the TV- and monitor-paneled command center where Team Rubicon tracks responses was quiet.

“Yes, I’m hungover from last night’s Super Bowl party,” said Wood, his Team Rubicon hat on backward, to start the meeting. He sometimes acts like a millennial bro, but Wood’s vision, drive, and leadership skills are why the six department heads in the room included a CIA grad, a logistician plucked from Amazon, and a 25-year researcher at MIT. Their to-do list included the opening that month of an enormous training center in Dallas, home to most of the nation’s disaster-aid infrastructure, and filling 13 new positions around the country. 

“If you know anybody who knows anybody who wants to give a couple million bucks, please let me know,” said Steve Hunt, the former MIT researcher and the man in charge of hiring. “We gotta raise money if we’re going to get the people we need.” 

So far only the position of chief financial officer had been filled. They’d hired Art Delacruz, a former Topgun aviator, away from Northrup Grumman, where he helped run a $10 billion division. 

Wood acknowledged the growing pains, but he put them in perspective. “We’re six years into an organization that is going to last a hundred,” he said. As the meeting wound on, he peppered his staff with questions and talked about his eventual goal to make Team Rubicon a one-stop shop for disaster aid. “We want veterans to be the people communities turn to in times of crisis,” Wood said. He envisions the future Team Rubicon as a modern volunteer fire department, with members in every locality. 

The meeting’s biggest news was an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management to train members for free to fight wildland fires and then pay them to work. Last year, the BLM spent $690,000 to train and deploy 191 Team Rubicon volunteers, most of them underemployed, to fight historically large burns. Wood also wants to branch out from just the response stage of disaster aid into helping communities prepare for disasters before they strike and rebuilding long after the initial trauma has passed. In the meeting, they talked about a resiliency pilot project, in which volunteers helped a Bay Area city plan for disasters, and a recent collaboration with psychologists to provide volunteers with Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. One thing they discussed only briefly was Team Rubicon Global, the new international offshoot headed by McNulty. The organization uses the same model of veterans providing disaster relief in other nations, including England and Germany, and so far McNulty is finding similar success. Last month, Prince Harry deployed with British veterans from Team Rubicon UK to Nepal.

After several hours, Wood called the meeting to a close. “Alright guys, any saved rounds?” Wood asked, sounding more like the officer he’s become than the door kicker he wanted to be when he started Team Rubicon. “Long day of meetings tomorrow. Come ready. Come with an open mind.” 

Wood would have to conference in. He had a flight to New York City to defend an unfinished proposal for a multimillion-dollar grant. That night he would stay at his standing desk until nearly midnight, working in an office sparsely decorated but not empty. Behind him he’d hung his football and sniper helmets and a map of Port-au-Prince. And over his shoulder was a framed picture of himself with his arm wrapped around a smiling Clay Hunt.    

Contributing editor Kyle Dickman (@kyledickman) is the author of On the Burning Edge.

From Outside Magazine, August 2016 Lead Photo: Andrew Renneisen

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