Can Service Save Us?

It just might. By helping returning troops regain their sense of purpose, veterans’ groups are proving that public service is therapeutic

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TIME Magazine Cover, July 1, 2013
Photo-Illustration by Andrew B. Myers for TIME; styling by Kirsten Reader; typography by Joe Zeff Design

After the Tornado
Of course, it’s not enough to talk about the values of service. It’s best to experience them — and so, after the Oklahoma City tornadoes, I spent Memorial Day weekend working with the Team Rubicon members doing disaster relief.

We deployed in the postapocalyptic shadow of the local Imax. The landscape was the sort of thing you’d normally see inside the theater — total, sometimes incomprehensible post-tornado devastation. There were cars literally wrapped around trees, 2-by-4s javelined into the sides of houses, a hospital crushed, strip-mall banality interrupted, obliterated by the storm, and then resumed a quarter-mile down the road.

But there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals — and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon. They looked tough, megatatted, in camouflage pants, gray T-shirts and white hard hats. They moved with purpose and spirit and were equipped by Home Depot — which has done brilliant work locating and funding the very best veterans service groups — with an impressive array of chain saws, power tools, wheelbarrows, tarps and wood.

The 60 Rubicon volunteers came from all over the country, but most, in this first phase of the deployment, were from the Midwest. They were aided by a handful of civilian volunteers, including a cadre of first responders from elsewhere in the country — cops from Ipswich, Mass., firefighters, who seem particularly attracted to the Rubicon style — a chaplain from Florida and me. My team leader, Chad, immediately gave me a nickname — Grampa (ouch) — and a wheelbarrow. We worked our way down Southwest 7th Street, clearing debris and piling it on the street front (hence my wheelbarrow), chainsawing trees, covering broken windows with boards, nailing tarps to shattered rooftops.

This was the first disaster-relief deployment for about 40% of the Team Rubicon volunteers, by my very unofficial count — and it was a matter of joy and relief for them. “I feel blessed to have a mission again,” Isaiah Johnson of Oklahoma City, an Army veteran, told me. “This feels like home. I’m out here with my people.” Isaiah and his “very extremely close” friend Megan McKee, a Navy Rescue Swimmer, were part of a work team headed by Marine Master Sergeant (ret.) Michael Washington, a 50-year-old Seattle firefighter — known as Top to his troops, of course — who lost his son in Iraq.

Top was one of those guys you just follow. He radiated a natural authority, taking the lead on the toughest jobs while puffing on a very complicated-looking pipe. At the end of our Saturday labor, Top called his crew together and told them, “This was a great team. We really learned how to do this work today. We may not work together tomorrow, but you are all leaders now. You can do this.” Those were magic words for his squad. Most of them hadn’t heard that sort of praise, or encouragement, from anyone since they came home. As Top later told me, it was good for him too, almost like serving with his son’s comrades. (Indeed, after Hurricane Sandy, he actually found himself working with kids who had served with his son in Iraq.) “I’m in this for good,” Top told me. “I’m anywhere they want me.”

On Sunday night, back in the Team Rubicon barracks — a not-so-nearby high school gymnasium — we gathered for an evening debrief. Some people talked about the day’s work; others talked about how they’d been feeling alone, stressed, angry, passive back home … and how being part of a unit once again really mattered. We sat in the dark bleachers of the high school’s softball field. A warm, gentle breeze was blowing in from the Gulf. Toward the end of the meeting, an incredibly courageous Army staff sergeant named Chris Dominski remembered not just the men who had died under his command in Baghdad in 2004, but also the precise date and circumstances of their deaths, the names of the wives and children they’d left behind. He spoke softly. The effect was mesmerizing. Chris said he’d had a hard time with survivor guilt after he came home. He said he’d tried to commit suicide twice. “I guess I wasn’t too good at it, but what I wanted to say here is that you — Team Rubicon — you saved my life.”

(MORE: The War on Suicide?)

On Monday, there was a Memorial Day service at the Team Rubicon Forward Operation Base in the parking lot of the Home Depot on Southwest 19th Street. Top led the service. He read the Gettysburg Address in a taut, sharp military manner, in a way that brought power and emotional resonance to the words:

“That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

After that, Top recited the names of dead comrades, ending with his son. The flag was raised, and taps was sung by a solitary anonymous voice. And then we all went back to work. The march down Southwest 7th Street continued — and, this time, the men and women of Team Rubicon were winning their battle, house to house.

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