Adam Szafran knows disaster.
Nine years ago next month, while serving in Iraq with the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, he was in the Tactical Operations Center at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul when a suicide bomber self-detonated in the base’s nearby chow hall.
The blast killed 22 people, including two Mainers, and wounded 80 others, including two dozen Mainers. Szafran’s job that day: help coordinate the emergency response to what at the time was the worst single attack on U.S. forces in the Iraq War.
Fast forward to last weekend, when Szafran boarded a flight for Los Angeles to help coordinate the emergency response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines – not as a soldier this time, but as a civilian well versed in getting help where it’s most needed, and fast.
“It’s very therapeutic,” said Szafran, 32, over his cellphone Monday. “That’s one of the goals of this organization.”
He’s talking about Team Rubicon, a veterans organization tailor-made for the legions of young Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade-plus and now find themselves itching to do something meaningful here with the skills they developed over there.
Founded by retired Marines Jacob Wood and Will McNulty after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Team Rubicon draws its name from the river in northeastern Italy that Julius Caesar and his army crossed on their way to Rome in 49 B.C. From that legendary march comes the oft-used phrase “crossing the Rubicon,” which in modern times means committing to a risky course of action beyond the point of no return.
“It’s very much a cathartic experience, to go out into these disaster zones that are eerily similar to combat zones,” said McNulty in a separate interview Tuesday. Only now, he said, “you’re just going there with goodwill.”
Since it first descended on Haiti almost four years ago, Team Rubicon has ballooned to 12,000 members nationwide. They’ve responded to disasters and provided other humanitarian relief in eight locations around the world (including Japan after the tsunami in 2011) and 21 communities throughout the United States (including those hit by Hurricane Sandy and the seemingly endless parade of tornadoes that has raked the Midwest in the past few years).
Szafran, who left the military in 2008 and now works as an Internet technology engineer for Martin’s Point Health Care in Portland, spent several years casting about for a service-oriented organization when he came across Team Rubicon last year via a speech by co-founder Wood. He was particularly impressed with the group’s motto: Bridging the Gap.
For Team Rubicon, the slogan centers on the time that inevitably ticks away between a disastrous event – say, this month’s catastrophic typhoon in the Philippines – and the deployment of coordinated help from various global relief organizations. Team Rubicon’s rapid-response “strike teams,” patterned after military operations, strive to “bridge the gap” and save as many lives as possible in the critical hours and days before other help arrives.
For Szafran, now the state coordinator for Maine, Team Rubicon bridges an equally important divide, between his eight years in the military and his current life as a civilian. He calls his newfound calling “the modern-day VFW.”
He’s quick to point out that groups like Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion “have their mission and do serve a purpose.” Still, Szafran said, many younger veterans who did one or more tours in Iraq or Afghanistan need much more than what those traditional organizations have to offer.
He should know.
“I think I struggled in my own way, as everybody does,” Szafran said, looking back on the aftermath of his year in Iraq. “I didn’t have a whole lot of what I call major issues.”
Nevertheless, when some of his longtime civilian friends finally stepped up and told him he wasn’t quite the same guy they knew before he went off to war, Szafran had the good sense to seek help from the Department of Veterans Affair. He sees his monthly counseling sessions (down from weekly) as an “intelligent move” and has persuaded some of his old war buddies to do the same.
Helping oneself, however, doesn’t lift the spirit quite like helping others. Only after he signed on with Team Rubicon late last year and attended his first training session, in the White Mountains with a group of fellow Maine veterans, did Szafran know he’d found the perfect channel for his post-military energy.
Thus last week, when the alert went out for a second strike team to relieve the one already in the Philippines, Szafran looked at his busy work schedule and reluctantly concluded he couldn’t be in Los Angeles for the Friday morning mobilization deadline.
But there he was on a plane to California early Saturday morning, more than happy to fill in at Team Rubicon’s national headquarters for a week – half of it vacation time, the other half paid volunteer time that Martin’s Point offers to all employees – and help stage the relief effort.
“Then last night, we get the tornadoes going through Illinois,” he said. “Probably within a couple hours of those storms passing through, we had a strike team mobilizing to go into that area and do damage assessment. And we’re working on sending two more strike teams in there today.”
It’s not the free trip to Florida or the T-shirt with the uplifting slogan or any of the other myriad gestures that have sprung up in recent years to honor the country’s latest generation of war veterans as they begin to heal physically, emotionally or all of the above.
For Szafran and the many others now proudly attached to Team Rubicon, it’s something vastly more profound than all that: a welcome opportunity to turn the trauma of war into a force for good.
“We’re the first organization I know of that has successfully started changing the conversation about what PTSD is like and how to engage veterans who might be suffering from stuff like that,” said Szafran. “We give people the tools to get involved.”
Earlier this fall, Team Rubicon veterans from all over New England flocked to a three-day training session organized by Szafran at Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport. There, between war stories, they learned the do’s and don’ts of using a chain saw to clear debris from a disaster site.
“That’s a huge need,” said Szafran. “To have people who can effectively and safely operate chain saws to get debris cleared goes a long way for families on the ground trying the recover.”
No doubt. But you’ve got to believe removing all that rubble goes even farther for guys like Szafran.
Dangerous as it is to handle, after all, a chain saw is not a weapon.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be reached at 791-6323 or at: