Since early 2020, the coronavirus has posed a grave threat to the United States – and throughout the pandemic, former service members have, once again, answered the call to protect and serve their fellow Americans.
Many have taken action with Team Rubicon, a non-profit that has helped veterans respond to more than 500 humanitarian disasters during the past decade.
The group was co-founded by Jake Wood, a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He led dozens of veterans on a mission to Haiti after the massive 2010 earthquake and realized that former service members could be a valuable resource in times of crisis.
“These are men and women who have volunteered to serve in harm’s way before,” said Wood, a 2012 CNN Hero. “They may have taken the uniform off, but they still have service in their hearts (and) they still have those incredible skills.”
Team Rubicon lets veterans, who make up about 70% of its member base, put their experience to use helping others. It deploys international medical teams to assist with humanitarian crises worldwide. Domestically, volunteers often respond to natural disasters – such as floods or tornadoes – typically assisting with tasks like debris removal, search and rescue, hazard mitigation and volunteer management.
When Covid-19 hit the United States, Wood said he knew his volunteers could play a vital role.
“We immediately pivoted to get our volunteers doing work like supporting food banks, delivering groceries directly to people’s doorsteps, setting up Covid testing sites,” he said. “I’m really proud of the contribution we’ve made.”
Early on, Wood asked all the volunteers on his roster – then more than 120,000 – as well as any others who wanted to help, to join the group’s nationwide “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” campaign. The goal: to help the most vulnerable members of society in a way that keeps at-risk populations safe and contains the spread of the virus.
This campaign offered volunteers many ways to get involved. While most Team Rubicon operations are highly organized, Wood encouraged volunteers to do what he calls “individual acts of service” – such as checking on an elderly neighbor or helping someone whose immune system is compromised.
Wood’s group also assisted with a number of large-scale operations across the United States. Veterans helped get food to those in need, often in conjunction with organizations like Feeding America and Meals on Wheels. Additionally, Team Rubicon’s volunteers helped operate critical health care efforts, such as a drive-thru testing site and a 250-bed federal medical station in Santa Clara, California.
For the past six months, the group has also been very involved with vaccination efforts in all 50 states.
“We’ve supported hundreds of sites across the country, doing the simple things like site setup and teardown, patient registration, optimizing patient flow,” he said. “It’s been a modern-day medical wartime effort to get doses into the arms of Americans. And so we’re really proud we’ve been able to support nearly two million doses across the country.”
During the pandemic alone, Team Rubicon says its volunteers have so far helped nearly 10 million people around the country.
“This was a whole of America emergency, and it required a whole of America response,” Wood said. “This is a moment for all Americans to rise to the occasion by thinking about the greater good.”
CNN spoke with Wood about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: Your volunteers pitched in a lot with food distribution. Is that type of work usual for Team Rubicon?
Jake Wood: It’s certainly outside the norm of what we do, but we quickly saw that food banks and food security in general would become really important in this pandemic. Many food banks and pantries rely on volunteers, like we do, but many of those (volunteers) tend to be in the at-risk demographic of over 65. So, those services were grinding to a halt, just as they were becoming more needed. Our volunteers have been helping with the logistics of food sorting and getting meals to people’s doorsteps.
CNN: How has Team Rubicon been helping with the medical needs that have been sparked by this virus?
Wood: We have had volunteers on the front lines of all this – whether they’re running a testing site in North Carolina or a hospital center in California. We’ve also deployed members of our international medical team here domestically to help decompress health care systems that were overwhelmed.
One of my proudest accomplishments over the last year was the work that we did in the Navajo Nation. The people living there had one of the highest case rates and fatality rates of anywhere in America and Team Rubicon stepped in with hundreds of medical providers for nearly 300 days. I have no doubt that we were saving the lives of numerous people while we were there. And that’s now extended into the vaccine work.
We’ve supported over 12,000 vaccinations in the Navajo Nation, which has one of the highest vaccine uptake rates of anywhere across the country, which is a testament to the community-oriented approach that they have. It’s that mentality of, “We’re in this together” – and we need more of that across the country.
CNN: How do you think your group has handled all of the challenges posed by the pandemic?
Wood: Fifteen months ago, we were all faced with a choice: Were we going to retreat into our cave and hope that the pandemic would pass us by or were we going to help as many people as we could? And at Team Rubicon, we didn’t blink. We stretched ourselves into missions that we had never imagined doing before.
Our team was flexible, adaptive, innovative – and they were committed to helping their country during one of the greatest crises it’s ever faced. The one thing that I’d want people to know about Team Rubicon is that when you need us, we will be there.
Want to get involved? Check out the Team Rubicon website and see how to help.