Last Veterans Day, former soldier Matt Pelak led hundreds of other veteran volunteers from disaster response group Team Rubicon in a day of service in the Rockaways, helping rebuild the devastated New York neighborhood after Hurricane Sandy. A world away, Kristen Rouse was finishing up a tour in Afghanistan as an Army officer. A year changed much for both soldiers, but the compulsion to serve remained steady.
On Monday, Pelak, Rouse, and 13 other veteran volunteers from Team Rubicon touched down in Manila to rendezvous with a Philippine Air Force C-130 cargo plane en route to Tacloban City, the scene of unprecedented destruction from last week’s Typhoon Haiyan. The death toll continues to rise, but Team Rubicon’s first wave of volunteers are pressing forward to apply their military experience to bring aid to areas devastated by the historic typhoon.
Kirk Jackson, one of the 15 volunteers that include paramedics, nurses, and Tagalog linguists, described the scene as they arrived at the Tacloban City airport. “Once there the light-hearted banter that had kept us awake [since leaving Los Angeles] ceased. Before us stood both the skeletal remains of an airport and hundreds of locals seeking to be counted as the lucky few who get a spot on outgoing planes.”
As tens of thousands of residents are evacuated off the island of Leyte, the immediate task for Team Rubicon is search and rescue and to treat the victims who are unable to make their way to the airport. The medical crews are inundated by the volume of need, with everything from emergency C-sections to regular lacerations.
“Ambulances seemed to come every hour,” Jackson said. “We'd hear the sirens and sprint downstairs to aid in unloading the wounded. One thing has become painfully clear: tin roofs do just as much damage after the storm as they do during. Multiple lacerations, mostly from the knees down, in addition to compound fractures, more women in labor, and every other type of wound one may imagine.”
Arriving in the affected areas roughly 72 hours after the typhoon made landfall, the volunteers are working with the Filipino military forces in order to get into hard-hit areas that aid has not yet reached. Jackson described the scenes of destruction as “gut-wrenching” as Team Rubicon volunteers adapt to do everything from medical aid to organizing helicopter evacuation for those needing more complex care.
“Ambulances seemed to come every hour,” Jackson said. “We'd hear the sirens and sprint downstairs to aid in unloading the wounded.”
Founded in 2010 after the devastating earthquakes in Port-au-Prince, Team Rubicon has grown rapidly, mobilizing veterans to respond to crises and wrest order from chaos. The Philippines mission, dubbed ‘Operation Seabird,’ is the organization’s most recent relief effort, a list that includes dozens of domestic assignments and overseas deployments to Pakistan, Burma, South Sudan, and Chile among others.
The largest mission came last year after Hurricane Sandy but this latest disaster represents an opportunity for Team Rubicon to build on existing capabilities to rapidly push trained veteran volunteers into the hardest-hit areas.
“Seabird is set to become for international operations what Hurricane Sandy was for our domestic response,” said Jacob Wood, President and Co-Founder of Team Rubicon. With 19 personnel currently in the Philippines, Team Rubicon is planning to send many more in order to transition from immediate crisis response to long term recovery.
From their Los Angeles offices, the group monitors potential crises in order to rapidly deliver relief. Weather forecasts helped speed preparations as Team Rubicon seeks to put crews and equipment on the ground as quickly as possible following a crisis. Operation Seabird began while the storm was still over water.
“Planning started Thursday night before the storm made landfall when headquarters and regional leaders were placed on alert. On Friday afternoon, after initial damage reports, we began selecting the team,” Wood said. On Saturday the volunteers from eight states assembled in Los Angeles for final preparations before flying to Asia Sunday night.
That the volunteers landed in the Philippines on Veterans Day is not lost on Wood, a former Marine. “It's incredibly fitting that on a day set aside to celebrate the past actions of our nation's veterans that Team Rubicon has the opportunity to show the world that we're not done serving. These men and women jumped at the opportunity to put themselves in harm's way to help a population in desperate need.”
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