Veterans find 'reintegration' with volunteer disaster relief program


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What happens when the skills of military veterans and first responders are combined?

A hardball disaster relief team that will muck water out of basements, sift through rubble for a victim's belongings and thrust trees from toppled houses.

Started in 2010 by two marine veterans who spontaneously flew to Haiti to help with disaster relief, Team Rubicon has grown from 20 volunteers to 10,000 across the nation by word of mouth and social media.

Similar to how soldiers are deployed, Team Rubicon sends help to areas affected by disaster in structured rotations, the most recent being Moore, Okla., which was struck by a tornado that killed 24 people three weeks ago. Thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed.

There are 10 Team Rubicon regions across the U.S. that mirror the Federal Emergency Management Agency's structure. Region three, which includes Pennsylvania, has 1,200 volunteers. Four local volunteers have already deployed to Moore and returned, and five more left last Thursday for a weeklong deployment.

Airlines such as Jet Blue and Southwest have donated hundreds of tickets for volunteers to make it across the country.

Veterans "basically thrive in these types of environments, so when disaster strikes, these veterans really are like plug and play," said JC McGreehan, regional administrator for region three. "You put them in there, and they just make things happen."

Since the initial rush of relief has passed, Team Rubicon is one of the biggest organizations still on the ground in Moore, continuing to send help.

Tony Canzonieri, a native of Belle Vernon and Team Rubicon member, returned to Pittsburgh last Monday after a week in Moore.

"The large scale of the destruction was just something I've never seen before," said Mr. Canzonieri, who was active in the Army from 2004-08. Moore was his second deployment for Team Rubicon after Hurricane Sandy.

Sleeping on a cot and working with limited tools, Mr. Canzonieri worked long days demolishing houses to their foundations so they could be rebuilt, saving homeowners thousands of dollars.

In some cases, the veterans were able to salvage personal items for the victims, such as photographs.

Mr. Canzonieri remembered the look of gratitude on a Korean War veteran's face as his brothers unearthed a photo of his newborn granddaughter in the rubble.

So what makes Team Rubicon different from the American Red Cross or FEMA?

"We are a little more bull-headed," said Mr. McGreehan, 34, of Baldwin Borough "Inaction is not an option, is basically what it comes down to."

They also use Palantir Technologies, the software used overseas to track IEDs, to assess the level of damage for a specific area so they know how many people should be deployed and where.

At the end of 2011, the group stumbled upon something when responding to domestic missions that replaced the foundation of the organization -- veteran reintegration.

"We saw that these veterans were not only getting out of just volunteering, but they were getting the little bit of themselves back when they were overseas," Mr. McGreehan said. "Instead of employing veterans to disaster relief, we were using disaster relief as a tool for veteran reintegration."

Mr. McGreehan led a team of 400 veterans, primarily in their 20s and 30s, to New Jersey to help clean up the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy for several weeks. While there, they realized with the veteran's leadership skills, they could assemble spontaneous volunteers to teams and assign them to tasks, he said.

Veterans still take trips to New Jersey for weekend projects.

Mr. McGreehan, who was part of one of the first waves to hit Afghanistan in 2001, now works as a local paramedic while volunteering up to 40 hours a week to expand Team Rubicon and make sure the major areas in each region are self-sustained.

"We want the volunteers in Pittsburgh to form their own team Pittsburgh and know each other," Mr. McGreehan said.

In between disasters, Team Rubicon strives to keep up its mission by organizing community service projects, outings and training for veterans.

Veterans who wish to join can go to www.teamrubiconusa.org and upload their military records. Free online Incident Command System classes developed by FEMA are highly encouraged so veterans know how to integrate into domestic disaster response.

"It's about [giving the veterans] a mission to continue on," Mr. Canzonieri said. "And to ensure that they are able to make connections and regain some of that camaraderie they had in the military."

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Marina Weis: mweis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.


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