That is why multiple teams of first-responders are on their way to a disaster zone halfway around the world. This generation of military veterans is unlike any other. My father fought in Vietnam, my grandfather in World War II. The vast majority of service members in those conflicts were drafted. By contrast, today’s military is all-volunteer. Most signed up or re-enlisted during a time of war. The desire to serve drove them to join in the first place, and it remains part of their DNA. That instinct does not simply vanish when they return to civilian life. When I visit wounded service members, I hear this refrain again and again: I want to get back to my unit. I want to continue to serve.
That is certainly how I felt. Since leaving the Navy, I went back to school, taught for a while, and did my time in corporate America. Now I am the chief operations officer of Team Rubicon, a non-profit that repurposes the skills of military veterans to redeploy them as disaster-relief volunteers. For me, like almost every vet I know, the call to serve is inescapable. It is felt most deeply on those occasions, like Memorial Day, when we think about our buddies who never came home. By serving again, we honor them.
In September of 2013, I found myself in Longmont, Colorado, riding shotgun in a pickup truck with Ryan Creel, former Army combat photographer turned disaster-relief worker. He was leading teams of volunteers in a flood-ravaged Colorado town. Ryan’s crews shoveled out mud and debris in a row of homes along the river, and surveyed property damage in an upstream neighborhood cut off by the shifting waters. Behind his mountain-man beard was a look of hard determination. Also the hint of a smile. He had a mission again. But the road to get there was hard.
“I was embedded with an Iraqi [Special Forces] team,” he told me. “Great guys, every single one.” Ryan ate, slept, and fought alongside these men. He spoke of the bond they forged, the kind possible only in the furnace of war. He talked of darker things too. “One of my duties was documenting the dead.” On several occasions, insurgents discovered the identities of his Iraqi teammates. They were dragged from their homes, tortured, and killed. It was Ryan’s job to identify the bodies. Those images became seared into his brain.
When Ryan came back from Iraq, he was thanked for his service. But the well-meaning offers of support were not enough to make up for what Ryan left behind. “It wasn’t just the friends I lost,” he confided. “When I took off that uniform, I had no identity, no purpose.” His life spiraled out of control. There were too many experiences he could not forget, too many things he could not unsee. He spent months in a psychiatric facility. Too often, the stories Americans hear end there—with the suffering vet. But with help, Ryan began to recover. The most important part of that journey, he insisted, was finding a new mission. If there is one thing that binds vets like Ryan, Cal, and Bob, it is their desire to continue serving.