Taking Off the Uniform, but Retaining the Drive to Serve

It is four o’clock in the morning. The cot on my office floor beckons. But this place is bustling. In the ready room next door, the medical team will soon be assembling. Cal Verdin, a former Army paratrooper, checks gear and reviews the latest damage reports from Kathmandu. The recon team is already en route to Nepal, and will touch down in a few hours. Another will follow tomorrow, led by Bob Obernier, a former Navy corpsman turned firefighter. Since Saturday’s massive quake, there have been dozens of aftershocks. Over the coming days, waves of military vets and first responders will touch down near the epicenter. My job, here in Los Angeles, is to get them there safely, with medications, satellite phones, and water purifiers.

When I was a Navy pilot, sleepless nights and pre-dawn briefings were part of the deal. I led a combat-reconnaissance crew and deployed around the globe. Now, the wars I helped wage have wound down. Americans are eager to move on. Most already have. Yet for the two million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, another battle looms. Some struggle to re-enter society, to build a life among civilians who cannot fathom what they have seen and experienced. They are viewed not as assets, but as damaged goods. However, the vast majority of returning vets are highly trained public servants determined to continue serving their communities and their country.

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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.

When my father returned from Vietnam, he was not welcomed the way he should have been. For too many veterans of his generation, the narrative about their failure to readjust became self-fulfilling. They were seen as broken, unable to adapt to life as civilians. The down-and-out Vietnam vet, camped under a bridge and holding a cardboard sign, became a sad cliché. Some Americans might be tempted to see today’s vets through that lens.

But a sea change is underway. This latest generation is determined to upend those stereotypes. More than 90 percent of post-9/11 veterans believe that giving back to the community is a basic responsibility. They are more likely than their civilian counterparts to fill leadership roles in civic organizations, and more likely to vote. They come back not only proud to have served, but keenly aware that their country still needs them. And they are aided by a new crop of veterans groups that are challenging the old way of welcoming them home. Non-profits like Vote Vets, The Mission Continues, and Growing Veterans help vets run for office, volunteer in their communities, and start their own organic farms.

Similarly, Team Rubicon is giving veterans a chance to continue their service, both at home and abroad. Our follow-on teams of veterans and first-responders continue to provide relief in Nepal, and the initial crews are coming home. New waves of volunteers are deploying to tornado-ravaged communities in Texas and Oklahoma, and to a town in Nebraska struck by a flash flood. In all, more than 26,000 stand ready to help communities in need.

Over the next four years, more than a million service members will return to civilian life. This presents an enormous opportunity to revitalize the United States. Vets like Cal, Bob, and Ryan are committed to serving others long after their time in uniform has ended. That service will take many forms, from classrooms to boardrooms to disaster zones. One thing is certain—this generation of veterans is determined to take the skills and experiences from the longest wars in our history, and turn them into a force for good.