Veterans find new life through volunteering

PHOTO COURTESY OF TEAM RUBICON. The team at Burnt Tree Revival, Rist Canyon.

by Libby James

Nick Dunagan thought he was just fine when he left the U.S. Army after five years of service and a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan. But his transition into civilian life was more difficult than he’d imagined. He had issues with anger, and he kept losing jobs. In 2016, he experienced a weekend with Team Red White and Blue, an organization that provides physical outlets for veterans, where he learned about an organization with some similar goals, Team Rubicon. But he didn’t follow up.

A year later, when he was living in Colorado Springs, an enormous, damaging wind struck the area. Dunagan learned that Team Rubicon was helping with cleanup, and he pitched in to help. That was the beginning of a life-changing experience for him. He took the necessary training, passed a background check and became an official member of Team Rubicon, an international non-government, non-profit organization with a simple motto: “Disasters are our business. Veterans are our passion.”

Founded in 2010 by former Marine Jake Wood and several others, initially to respond to the earthquake in Haiti, Team Rubicon has grown to a force of 80,000 volunteers. Seventy percent of the team are veterans who have found that by giving their services to others during times of crisis they are able to heal their own war wounds, often hidden and unacknowledged.

Today, Dunagan serves as state communications coordinator for Team Rubicon in Colorado at the same time that he is pursuing a degree in sports medicine at Colorado State University. He plans to enter a doctoral program in physical therapy after he completes his undergraduate degree. He is filled with enthusiasm about his plans and about his role in sharing the work of Team Rubicon. The organization is named for a river in northern Italy that represents a boundary that, once crossed, an individual is irrevocably committed to.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, Team Rubicon was there with a force that included members from as far away as Norway and Australia. The organization is supported entirely by donations, from individuals and corporations. Team members are reimbursed for travel expenses but give of their time and expertise without any financial compensation.

Membership is open to civilians who, Dunagan says, “can put up with our foul mouths and rowdiness.” He points out that an important component of the organization is that it provides the sense of purpose and belonging that veterans so often miss when they leave military service. He confirms that the adrenaline rush from responding to disasters is part of the appeal of the organization.

PHOTO COURTESY OF TEAM RUBICON. Team Rubicon clears a creek

Between May 31 and June 3, 2018, a crew of more than 30 travelled up Rist Canyon in the Colorado foothills to conduct what they called Operation Burnt Tree Revival in the vicinity of Buckhorn United Methodist Church Camp. Severely damaged by the fire, part of the camp had been closed to children because of the danger of fallen trees and other debris. It was the team’s fourth annual visit to the area, and this time, with their chainsaws and determination, they not only finished clearing out the dead trees and debris, but managed to plant 1,200 trees donated by the U.S. Forest Service. “The ground was so hard-packed that we had to send to town for pickaxes, but we got the job done,” Dunagan said. During the weekend, they were also able to clear out a clogged fire evacuation route in the area.

Dunagan calls Team Rubicon an “awesome reintegration program” that welcomes veterans into a familiar environment and returns a sense of purpose to their lives. For some, work with the team has provided an opening into a career. Mike Herrin of Loveland is studying to be an EMT. Others have found employment with the wildfire division of the Bureau of Land Management and have enrolled in firefighter training.

For more information and to donate to Team Rubicon, see Dunagan says that while dollars are always welcome, better yet is a decision to sign up and offer a helping hand.

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