A volunteer army of military veterans brings aid to shattered communities and helps heal the wounds of war
By Steven Hill
When William McNulty arrived in Haiti in January 2010, just three-and-a-half days after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked the Caribbean’s poorest, most populous country, the first thing the former Marine noticed was how much the capital city reminded him of a combat zone.
“Port-au-Prince looked just like Iraq after the war,” says McNulty, who spent nearly two years in Iraq working in counter-terrorism. “It looked a lot like Fallujah.”
Destruction was widespread and catastrophic. Some 250,000 homes collapsed, tens of thousands were killed and millions more were displaced. The nation’s already shaky infrastructure was devastated, complicating efforts to bury the dead and bring supplies and medical attention to the wounded. Power and communication grids were down, vehicles and fuel were in short supply, and the Port-au-Prince airport was closed. Media reports claimed that armed mobs were roaming the streets, and the Red Cross and the U.S. State Department advised against travel to the country, further slowing the arrival of international disaster agencies mobilizing large-scale relief efforts.
But for McNulty, c’01, and the military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who joined the seat-of-the-pants relief effort that he organized with his friend and fellow Marine Jake Wood, Haiti’s “post-chaotic environment” felt like familiar ground.
“There was a calmness the veterans had in dealing with a lot of the same issues [faced in war], the unstable populations, limited resources, the unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells,” McNulty recalls. While people and aid had begun piling up at the airport, “no one was operating in town,” he says. “We realized that we were out there alone, and just naturally falling back on our military training.”
The ad hoc “medical militia,” as the group called themselves, set up triage to treat the most critically wounded first. They improvised supplies, prying doors off ruined houses to use as stretchers and rigging splints from window frames and tree branches. And they were doing it without being shot at.
“It was actually a little bit cathartic for the team, knowing they were operating in this environment and yet they didn’t need to carry a gun, didn’t need to worry about anybody trying to kill them,” McNulty says.
“They were just there to help people.”
In the course of their 18 days in Haiti, a team that began with four grew to 60 and treated more than 3,000 wounded. It gained a name—Team Rubicon—and a mission: Take the crisis management skills and passion for service of returning war veterans and apply them to disaster-relief efforts around the globe. Unlike many international aid organizations, which can take days or weeks to fully mobilize, the veterans of Team Rubicon would strike quickly—within 24 hours, in most cases—bridging the gap between the immediate aftermath of disaster and the arrival of large-scale relief operations.
The urgent need for a humanitarian quick reaction force was particularly stark in Haiti, where McNulty soon realized that experience in a combat zone did not prepare the veterans and emergency first responders on his team for everything they would encounter in Port-au-Prince.
“In Iraq I had seen lots of fresh wounds—gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds,” he says. “I had never seen wounds that had been left to fester untreated for five or six days. I had never seen gangrene. Nor had our ER doctors. This is what we saw every day in Haiti. Crush wounds. Compound fractures. It was an experience no one will ever forget.”
On their second day in Port-au-Prince, the team was triaging patients at a collapsed school, sending those needing high-level care to a local hospital. Word came back that the hospital was full of wounded, but there was no medical staff to treat them. McNulty and his team moved in, re-establishing emergency care and staffing the ER for two days.
In their secure compound on the grounds of a Jesuit novitiate at the end of one long day, McNulty turned to Wood and said, “We have a model here. No one else is engaging veterans in this type of service, but it makes so much sense because of the skills we have.”
That realization spurred the two men to grow Team Rubicon into a thriving disaster-response organization that taps the unique skills of combat veterans to perform under pressure in crises. The 60 volunteers who joined them in Haiti in 2010 have since swelled to a volunteer force of 35,000 (75 percent of whom are veterans), with a full-time staff of more than 50 that provides back-office support for the dozens of disaster deployments Team Rubicon mounts each year. The nonprofit has attracted backing from the likes of the Clinton Global Initiative, the Starr Foundation and the Drue Heinz Family Foundation, which last year awarded McNulty and Wood the $250,000 Heinz Prize for the Human Condition.
Along the way, the organization that initially focused its attention on disaster victims began to realize that among those benefiting the most from Team Rubicon’s missions were the military veterans themselves.