Special to the Catholic Herald
After retiring from the U.S. Army – along with years as an active duty soldier – Claire Zajac still felt that itch to serve.
Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization manned by volunteer veterans and civilians, felt like a continuation of her military service, with volunteers who are mission-oriented and willing to sacrifice for the community good.
“That is what I missed when I retired … but now I can still give back with my fellow veterans, when communities which are hit by disaster need assistance and hope,” said Zajac, longtime parishioner at St. Patrick’s in Hudson.
A champion for social justice, she sees her military service as an ongoing opportunity. That role continues, at an even greater pace, now in the pandemic.
Now, in addition to responding to disasters, Team Rubicon volunteers are stocking food banks, setting up mobile COVID-19 testing sites and establishing and running rural medical centers.
Their telltale boxy Jeep-like trucks, given the name “Rubicon,” are on the highways and byways in the United States and across continents.
“Team Rubicon has always focused our attention and efforts on the communities being hit hardest,” a national official said. “We go where the need is greatest.”
Team Rubicon organizes itself a lot like the military, she said, so there is no wasted effort or resources.
“We show up where we are needed with the right people and equipment and fill in the gaps after the first responders leave and before long-term help can arrive. That is when many people hit by disaster begin to despair, when it seems like the job of rebuilding and putting their lives back together is just too tough,” Zajac said.
Then they see Team Rubicon pitching in.
“They begin to feel like it will eventually be all right. Everyone we assist is so very grateful and that keeps me committed to going on another deployment,” she said.
The first time Zajac deployed with Team Rubicon was within the diocese, for a three-day mission to assist with cleanup after the May 2017 tornado in Chetek.
“We did the usual: Clear roads and driveways with chainsaws, pick up debris, assist homeowners with moving salvageable items. We were based out of St. Peter’s Parish … so it was nice to begin and end our duty each day in a Catholic church,” she said.
“The staff and volunteers there were very hospitable, and we always find local supporters to help us set up an operations center as headquarters for our activities. I had never before seen tornado damage up close like that; it was a very moving experience. I also got the taste for volunteering with disaster assistance, which is different from other kinds of volunteering I usually do,” she added.
Leaving home on short notice and working long, physical days with the most personal aspects of a victim’s life can very hard, but it is also rewarding, Zajac said.
Her longest deployment with Team Rubicon was a shocker.
“I spent 10 days working on urban recovery after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and the metropolitan area really hard. I couldn’t believe how many people were displaced, how many homes were underwater, and how the infrastructure of a big city was stretched to the limits. We were based in a rough-and-tumble downtown neighborhood where we were not allowed to go out at night,” she said. “We slept in a Salvation Army chapel, and their staff were the kindest folks you could ever meet. We worked very hard during the day, mostly mucking out debris from homes which were underwater for many days, so there was also lots of mold and other hazards from the heat and humidity. It was hard, hard work, but you fall into your cot at night knowing you helped folks who could not rely on their friends and neighbors because the whole area was impacted. Even though that hurricane was in 2017, Team Rubicon still has volunteers on the ground there, working on rebuilding homes for selected veterans.”
Team Rubicon has a basic selection and training program, mostly online so the organization can maintain a virtual network of volunteers across the country. Once former soldiers pass the basic credentialing, they are notified of all upcoming deployments as they are scheduled.
You can pick a particular “wave” of deployment that fits into your schedule, Zajac said. It is very short notice, but the volunteers can pick and choose what works with their family and work life.
Once they are committed to a deployment, the organization takes care of the rest: arranging for plane tickets, pick up at airport, billeting, and assigning tasks each day out of the operations center.
“You almost always go out as teams, so it is a great way to build friendships with other veterans. I have met many younger vets, and it is a pleasure to continue serving with them,” Zajac said. “Even though I am a bit on the older side, you quickly connect and everyone just pitches in to get the job done.”
Team Rubicon is mostly made up of veterans, but also includes civic-minded civilians who feel called to do this work.
“I would encourage any veteran or civilian who is interested … to check out their website and consider joining a terrific group of volunteers who really make a difference when people need assistance most. I have met people from all walks of life with Team Rubicon, but they all have in common a strong desire to serve. It is a great asset to our country and I am very proud to be associated with them,” Zajac said.
She spent 26 years in the U.S. Army, five years of active duty and the remainder in the Reserves and was stationed in Germany for three years, with the opportunity to travel to many more countries on Army business.
“I feel very fortunate that I found a career that allowed me to have so much adventure along the way!” she added. “I learned a great deal about leadership and service in my time in the Army and I hope to continue giving back with organizations like Team Rubicon.”
Zajac has also been involved with flood help closer to home, in Dane County, and she also stays active in her home parish, St. Patrick’s, in social justice and volunteer efforts.
Since the founding in 2010, Team Rubicon has been deployed on 313 disaster response operations around the world. They maintain a growing roster of more than 85,000 volunteer members who are ready to deploy.
Military veterans have the unique skills and experiences necessary to respond effectively in the wake of disasters, the organization says. It seeks to provide veterans with an avenue to regain three things they lose after leaving the military: a purpose, gained through disaster response; community, built by serving with others; and identity, created by joining a new mission.
Between and during disaster response operations, Team Rubicon engages members in training, service projects and social events to ensure building the strongest, most effective cadre of disaster response workers in the world.
Team Rubicon has adopted FEMA’s National Incident Management System, which gives disaster response teams an advantage in being able to communicate and interact with federal, state and county agencies, engaging both veterans and civilians as Team Rubicon bridges the gap between military and civilian life.