On April 27, 2014, Jeff Hunter had spent his entire workday at Fred’s Super Dollar, in Vilonia, Arkansas, racked by apprehension. The weather forecast called for severe springtime storms, and there was nothing he disliked more than thunder and lightning. Two weeks earlier, the twenty-two-year-old had posted a video clip on the Internet about his weather fears, which had plagued him since he was a toddler. “I hate all the noise,” he said. “I hate the flashes of light.”
By the time his shift at Fred’s ended late that afternoon, his pulse had returned to normal. There wasn’t a storm cloud in the sky. Instead of heading to his apartment, he drove to his father’s house to pick up a few boxes of childhood possessions that he had promised to clear out of the attic. After he loaded them in his car, his stepmother, Vicki, invited him to stay for a lasagna dinner. As soon as they had finished, Jeff’s mobile phone buzzed with a text alert: “The National Weather Service has issued a TORNADO WARNING for Faulkner County.” They were sitting in Faulkner County.
He and his father, Tim, looked outside and saw that the sky had turned ominous. On the television, a red-splotched radar map filled the screen. Jeff and his family didn’t need the weatherman to tell them to get to safety—it sounded as if a jet were taking off on their lawn. The three of them rushed into an interior bathroom. Jeff and Vicki cowered inside the tub. Tim knelt next to them. While his dad and stepmom prayed, Jeff pulled out his phone and posted a message on Facebook: “Multi vortex tornado!!!!! Get to safety!!!”
Then he tapped out a text message. “Mama I’m so scared.”
“I love you Jeff,” his mother wrote back from her home twenty miles away. “You will make it.”
“It’s heading right for me.”
Before she could respond, he sent another text.
“I love you mama . . .”
Seconds later, a quarter-mile-wide EF4 tornado touched down on Clover Ridge Drive, the street where Jeff’s father lived, ripping the house apart and tearing into the bathroom. It sucked Jeff from the tub and into a ferocious funnel cloud. Neighbors found Jeff’s body on the street later that evening, buried under fragments of the house and the family’s possessions. Both Tim and Vicki were seriously injured, but they survived. “I have no idea how,” Tim said.
As he recovered in a local hospital and grieved for Jeff, Tim worried about his house. His brother, Anthony Hunter, broke the news that it was beyond repair. Every home on Tim’s side of Clover Ridge Drive had been destroyed by the tornado. Roofs were gone and windows shattered. Two-by-fours had been snapped in half as if they were matchsticks. Family photographs and heirlooms were scattered everywhere. Residents, friends, and family would have to sort through the rubble to recover whatever could be salvaged. Then the owners would have to call a demolition crew. Everything—the bricks, the floor tiles, the drywall, the appliances, the waterlogged furniture—would have to be hauled away.
Tim was certain the demolition firms would be charging top dollar, as they always did after big storms, and he feared the cost would deplete the insurance funds he would need to rebuild his house. He knew of others in Vilonia who had used so much of their insurance payouts to clear their lots after a tornado three years earlier that they were unable to afford new homes.
Anthony returned to the house the next day, driving through a tableau of postapocalyptic devastation. National Guard troops offered to help look for family keepsakes, but they couldn’t dis- mantle the structure. As Anthony prepared to search for a wrecking crew to hire, two men pulled up in a black Ford pickup truck. Clad in matching gray T-shirts identifying them as members of Team Rubicon, they walked around the property, their boots crunching shards of glass. One took notes on a clipboard, while the other tapped on a tablet computer and took a few photographs.
They offered to demolish what remained of the house and haul the debris to the curb so it could be collected by municipal workers, for free.
“Who are you guys?” Anthony asked.
“We’re veterans,” one said. “We’re here to help.”
The morning after the tornado, Team Rubicon began mobilizing as an Army battalion might. Two scouts arrived within a day, while first responders were still searching for victims and National Guard forces were just reaching the area. The Rubicon reconnaissance team quickly determined that local authorities were capable of handling the immediate rescue effort, but the community would need assistance with everything else: fastening plastic tarpaulins over damaged roofs, chopping up fallen trees, and hauling away the detritus of the storm. Scores of families like the Hunters required several sets of hands but lacked the money to hire private cleanup crews.
Then came the advance party. Over the following three days, several more Rubicon staffers and volunteer organizers descended on the area to pitch camp, unpack computers and chain saws, coordinate the arrival of rank-and-file volunteers, and introduce them- selves to local officials. Meanwhile, an assessment team drove out to talk to residents and compile work orders that would be given to Rubicon’s foot soldiers.
Five days after the storm, Team Rubicon’s two dozen volunteers were ready to go. They began the morning by hoisting an American flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the sunbaked parking lot of a Home Depot, where they had established their field head- quarters. Many had thrown sleeping bags in their cars and driven from as far as three hundred miles away. Some were college students who had decided to skip a week of classes to help. Others were self- employed or unemployed. A few had taken vacation time off from their jobs. One enterprising woman from Oklahoma City had persuaded her boss to handle her absence the same way the firm would treat an employee’s National Guard deployment—with full pay.
Joseph D’Amico, a burly former Marine turned entrepreneur, had been driving from Texas to his home in Connecticut with his fiancée, Pam Izzo, when he heard that Rubicon was responding to the tornado. He quickly diverted his Audi. He had served on a Rubicon tornado relief team a year earlier in Oklahoma and wanted to show Pam, a nurse, what it was all about. A few hours after they arrived in Arkansas, Pam had changed into a Rubicon shirt and was hauling tree branches.
Everybody on Team Rubicon was a veteran, except for Pam. Three had fought in Vietnam. The rest, all in their twenties and thirties, had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or both. After spending years in the military taking orders, all of them had earned the right to kick back and let others do the hard work during moments of national crisis. But, motivated by television footage of the tornado’s aftermath, they wanted to help. When Rubicon told its members about the opportunity to lend a hand in Arkansas, the organization restricted sign-ups to those living within two hundred miles of the storm site, to limit long drives and avoid expensive reimbursements for gasoline. The circle on the map excluded several members living in Texas and Oklahoma who were eager to participate. They received dispensation to come, if they agreed to carpool to save on gas money.
Although they didn’t wear camouflage or carry weapons, Rubicon members ran the assistance effort with the same organization, expedition, and nomenclature as a military mission. Their head- quarters was called the FOB—forward operating base. The command staff divided their functions as a battalion staff would, into operations, planning, communications, medical, and logistics. There was a morning brief, after which the group ate whatever chow was provided—often fried-chicken sandwiches from Chick-fil-A. They wore identical gray T-shirts, each emblazoned with their name, and divided themselves into teams named Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie, to fulfill work orders issued by the mission’s commander. Before they departed from the parking lot each day, they checked out equipment from neatly organized toolsheds, cleaning and testing their chain saws as they once did M16s. At night, they slept on Army-issue cots in a warehouse. Their endeavor even had a name: Operation Rising Eagle.
On the seventh morning after the tornado, once the flag raising and fried-chicken breakfast were finished, the incident commander, Chad Reynolds, told the volunteers that the headquarters had a large pile of outstanding work requests. “We’re behind the eight ball,” he said. “Let’s get out there and get stuff done.”
Before they left, the group received a weather report—another hot, sunny day—and a warning from the health officer. “Be careful of snakes, scorpions, chiggers, and meth labs.”
The Alpha team packed its pickup under the exacting eye of its leader, Randi Gavell, a petite former Army military police staff sergeant, who enforced the same standards she applied in Iraq, when her platoon’s Humvees were loaded with ammunition and ready-to-eat meals. Two ladders, two chain saws, two axes. A sledgehammer and shovel for everyone. Every implement was assembled neatly in the truck bed.
They drove for twenty minutes, sitting as they would if in the Army—the junior guy behind the wheel, Gavell in the front passenger seat, and the others on the rear bench—before turning onto Clover Ridge Drive. Because every house on the block had been eviscerated and every mailbox uprooted, Gavell and the five other veterans on her team had to count their way to the eighth dwelling on the right, number 16. This was the Hunters’ home.
As Gavell’s team huddled on the driveway, tools in hand, she informed them that their work site was a DBS—death by storm—house. Her information was jumbled, as can often happen in the chaotic days after a disaster. She told them a six-year-old boy had been killed in the home. She didn’t know—nor did anyone else at Rubicon—that Tim Hunter worked for the Arkansas National Guard. Even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered. Although Rubicon volunteers take particular pleasure in aiding fellow veterans, they triage work orders based on need, not military service.
“Yeah, it’s hot and muggy and dirty, and it’s hard work,” Gavell told her crew. “But if you see a brick on the ground, remember that brick could have seen a child’s first steps, it saw family dinners and first dates and birthdays. It saw their lives. This was their everything.” Gavell urged her team to take a break if the work got too taxing or emotionally overwhelming. “You’re humans. You have souls. It’s going to be hard,” she said.
The two burliest guys, Cody Wright and Tyler Bacon, both members of the Arkansas National Guard whose units had not been activated for storm response, swung sledgehammers at the remnants of the kitchen and master bathroom. Gavell tucked her dirty-blond hair under a white hard hat that carried a bumper sticker declaring, “Women who behave rarely make history,” and began prying apart wooden cabinets with a crowbar. Others used shovels, wheelbarrows, and their gloved hands to deposit the debris in giant piles along the street, next to a red Ford Contour that had been tossed into the front yard as a child might discard a Matchbox car.
If they spotted an item that appeared to be irreplaceable—a ribbon from a sports contest, an old photograph, a piece of needle-point—it was put aside. But everything else that had made the Hunter house a home was swept away: a Linkin Park compact disc, a bottle of rainbow-colored cake sprinkles, a package of Glade air freshener, a wooden wall clock.
Gavell encouraged her teammates to stay hydrated and take a breather when needed. But she couldn’t afford to allow them to lollygag. There were dozens more houses that they needed to get to. She couldn’t yell at slackers the way she did in the Army. These people were, after all, volunteers who could simply leave if they wanted. So she led by example, rarely pausing in her labor, and cajoled others to follow her lead. The old sergeant Gavell burst forth only once, when one member of her team grabbed a wooden duck from a trash pile. “We don’t take anything,” she admonished. “I don’t care if it’s garbage.”
After a brief break to scarf down boxed lunches provided by church volunteers, Gavell instructed her team to remove everything from the concrete slab on which the house had been built. Otherwise, she said, county inspectors would not be able to issue the family a permit to construct a new house. So they continued hammering, shoveling, and sweeping for another two hours. When they finished, she gathered them around once again. “You guys are fucking rock stars,” she gushed. “You just cleared off a path to rebuild dreams.”
Team Rubicon’s journey to Arkansas began with the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010. Jacob Wood, a former Marine sniper who had witnessed no dearth of carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan, was shaken by television footage of the shattered Caribbean island nation.
This looks just like Fallujah, he thought. I should get down there. I can make a difference. A moment later, he checked himself. What the fuck am I going to do? I’m one guy. Nobody will think this is a good idea.
But Wood didn’t permit prudence to scuttle his impulse. He relished challenges. He had attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison on a football scholarship, playing on the offensive line. He had thought about walking away from school just three weeks into his freshman year, right after the 9/11 attacks, but he figured it made sense to finish studying before serving. As he learned more about the wars, his desire to join the military only grew. In his junior year, that desire became resolve after reading news reports of the Marines’ first campaign to retake the Iraqi town of Fallujah and after learning that Pat Tillman, who had given up a promising National Football League career to become an Army Ranger, had been killed in Afghanistan. Although most college graduates opt to become officers, Wood didn’t want to wait a year—while he went through officer school and was assigned to lead a platoon—to engage in combat. So he enlisted in the Marines and became a private.
Transformed by boot camp from a beefy lineman to a chiseled infantryman, he soon found himself on the outskirts of Fallujah, but he didn’t stay a buck private for long. He was a natural leader, and his intellect and thirst for action attracted quick notice. He had arrived in Iraq in charge of a four-man team; two weeks later, he was promoted to corporal and named co-leader of a squad, directing his men through near-daily ambushes and roadside bomb blasts. A year and a half later, after graduating from Marine sniper school at the top of his class, he went to southern Afghanistan for seven months.
His dangerous stint there stripped away the last of his college- student fantasies about warfare. He worried that he was growing numb to violence. By the time he returned to Camp Pendleton on the Southern California coast in 2009, he had resolved to leave the military. He traveled to South America, moved in with his girlfriend, and applied to business schools.
Then the ground shook in Haiti. He was certain he could be of help. He knew how to dig people out of rubble, he could wield a hammer and a saw, and he could live out of a backpack, sleeping under the stars, without running water or other creature comforts. I can work in pure chaos, he said to himself.
“I really think I should go down there,” he told his girlfriend, who made him promise that he wouldn’t travel alone. He called the Red Cross, which informed him that it did not encourage spontaneous volunteers. He called his buddies in California, all of whom demurred. Then he called Jeff Lang, one of his college roommates, who had become a firefighter in Milwaukee. “Sure, dude,” his friend replied. “When do you want to go?” Lang said another firefighter in his station who had been a Marine wanted to join. Wood also posted a message on his Facebook page. A few hours later, he got a call from William McNulty, someone he had known in the Marines. “Wood, I want in,” McNulty said.
The four men arrived in Haiti days after the quake, joining forces with two civilian physicians and a former Army Special Operations medic who also were traveling on their own and hoping to find ways to participate in relief efforts. As soon as they reached Port-au-Prince, the group saw how vast the problems were. They focused on providing emergency medical assistance, which seemed to be the most urgent need.
As word of their work reached home, their e-mail in-boxes began filling with queries of interest. Within two weeks, their ranks grew to thirty, most of them veterans. Among the new arrivals was one of Wood’s closest friends, Clay Hunt, a Marine who had served in his platoon in Fallujah. Hunt had been shot by a sniper and had lost two of his platoon mates to attacks. He was struggling with post-traumatic stress, depression, and an unraveling marriage. Throwing himself into humanitarian aid appeared to brighten his mood. As the group returned home after a month, McNulty suggested to Wood that they organize a repeat performance when the next natural disaster struck overseas. “We can make it like a club,” Wood replied.
Over the following year, their “club,” which they called Team Rubicon, headed to tsunami-ravaged Chile, Burma, South Sudan, and flood-stricken parts of Pakistan. Other veterans who participated told Wood and McNulty that the relief operations were the most meaningful work they had performed since leaving the military. Several said the overseas trips gave them a sense of purpose as they struggled to build post-military lives and cope with the after-effects of combat.
In early 2011, Wood and McNulty began talking about how they could expand their group to help more disaster victims, as well as veterans. That March, the handsome and gregarious Hunt, who had met with members of Congress and appeared in public-service videos made by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress, locked himself in his Houston apartment and shot himself. Hunt’s suicide was a devastating blow to Wood. The two had gone to sniper school together and deployed to Afghanistan in the same unit. Wood had been the best man at Hunt’s wedding. Instead of the pills prescribed to Hunt by his VA doctor, which didn’t seem to work, Wood wished he could have doled out the same sense of purpose Hunt felt when he trudged through the slums of Port-au-Prince.
A few weeks after Hunt’s funeral, a tornado walloped Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Until then, Wood hadn’t focused on domestic disaster relief, but he decided to put out the call to his volunteers. Three days into the Alabama operation, as he sat around a campfire and drank whiskey with fifteen other veteran volunteers late on a Sunday night, he heard President Obama would be making a major national security announcement within the hour. Over the radio he learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed by Navy SEALs. Wood took it as a sign. Clay Hunt was dead. Osama was dead. The war had shifted to the home front. He had to do all he could for his fellow veterans. He wondered if he could mobilize even more veterans for projects within the United States.
A month later, Rubicon volunteers descended on Joplin, Missouri, after the town was struck by a gargantuan tornado. Then came Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast. The organization deployed three hundred veterans, running operations in New York and New Jersey for six weeks. By the time the tornado that killed Jeff Hunter struck central Arkansas, Rubicon had conducted nearly sixty operations and grown to sixteen thousand volunteers, divided into ten domestic zones that mirror the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regional structure.
The volunteers ranged from former commandos who couldn’t talk about the secret missions they conducted to young National Guard troops who performed the menial chores of war. The Joplin operation drew an Air Force intelligence analyst, a chemical-warfare specialist, and a Navy submarine technician. The three Vietnam veterans who joined the Arkansas operation weren’t unusual. Most relief efforts attracted a few fit graybeards who wanted to toil next to their Iraq and Afghanistan brethren. “I have yet to find a Vietnam veteran who hasn’t said, ‘I wish you were around forty years ago when I came home,’ ” Wood said.
For every case of post-traumatic stress among veterans, Wood was convinced there was a case of post-traumatic growth— sometimes in the same person. Every Rubicon operation brought a few men and women who had folded up their uniforms and felt rudderless in the civilian world. They found rejuvenation in aiding others. The gray T-shirts, the backbreaking labor, the austere accommodations, unappealing as they might have seemed to many nonveterans, were a throwback to veterans’ glory days. And their work exposed a nation disconnected from its military to the spirit of service that motivated so many young men and women to wear the uniform.
“There’s a value and power of continued service—for veterans and for society as a whole,” Wood said. “We can be an example of what the next greatest generation can be.”
Randi Gavell, the former sergeant who led the cleanup of the Hunters’ home, was among those who had traveled to Arkansas seeking to help storm victims even as she sought to find a way forward her- self.
She had joined the Army fresh out of high school in Grand Junction, Colorado. She became a military police soldier and two years later, in 2005, was sent to Iraq. Stationed in the chaotic western city of Ramadi, on the grounds of a water-treatment plant next to the Euphrates River, her unit was tasked with training Iraqi policemen. There were plenty of young men in Ramadi willing to sign up and claim a paycheck, but getting them to show up for duty and patrol the streets proved far more difficult.
Although there were multiple attacks against American troops in Ramadi, Gavell never felt anxious until one morning in August 2006 when rain fell from the sky. Residents rejoiced at this most unusual sight in the Iraqi desert, but Gavell didn’t. “A bad omen,” she warned her comrades.
An hour later, three trucks laden with explosives roared toward the front gate of the water plant. The first suicide bomber intended to detonate next to the gate, allowing the other two to drive inside before exploding, in an attempt to flatten the structure and maximize casualties. But the first truck exploded prematurely, triggering the other two vehicles and creating a massive fireball that incinerated two dozen recruits waiting outside. Ten of the twelve American soldiers inside the compound were injured, including Gavell, who suffered a severe concussion and a blown-out right eardrum.
Then came post-traumatic stress—blurred vision, bouts of dizziness, insomnia, and headaches so painful that she couldn’t get out of bed. Her Army doctor pumped her full of medicine—as many as thirty prescription pills a day, including a drug designed to treat testicular cancer that he thought would ease her anxiety. The pills numbed her aches and helped her sleep, but she spent her daytime hours in a haze.
After two years, she decided to quit taking the drugs cold turkey. “You lose so much of yourself anyway; I didn’t want to lose the rest of myself to the pills,” she said. The decision cost her her military career. She couldn’t keep serving if she had to call in sick once or twice a week on the days when she lay in bed curled up and shaking from migraines.
She eventually turned to exercise as a salve. She participated in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s inaugural Warrior Games for wounded service members and veterans, competing in swimming and volleyball. When she got out of the Army in 2010, she moved to Los Angeles, climbed on a bicycle, and joined a group called Ride 2 Recovery. As she became involved with the organization, she struck up a conversation with a fellow veteran struggling with post- traumatic stress, Clay Hunt.
They became fast friends. When he visited Southern California, he stayed in her apartment, and they commiserated about the challenges in adjusting to civilian life. On one visit, as he took a break from playing his guitar, he talked about his international aid work and urged her to sign up for Team Rubicon.
His suicide left Gavell despondent. She copied a tattoo he’d had on his arm onto her wrist: “Not all who wander are lost.” And she began to doubt her own recovery. If Clay, who had seemed so strong, felt so helpless, would she follow the same path? She tried to move forward. She met a woman at a Ride 2 Recovery race who introduced Gavell to her brother. They got engaged. For a while, it appeared that she was going to be okay. By the spring of 2013, how- ever, the engagement had hit the skids. She had moved to Colorado, he to Hawaii. She wished Clay were still around; he was always the one to get her back on her feet.
“When you get out, you don’t realize how lost you’ll be,” she said. She tried to go to college but felt awkward as a freshman at twenty-five. She took physical education and art classes at a com- munity college but found them unfulfilling. She tried business courses, but they were too difficult and boring. She tried online education, but she lacked the discipline to complete the course work. She moved to Hawaii to attend massage therapy school and rekindle her engagement, but both ventures failed, and she eventually returned to Colorado.
That May, as she was wallowing in depression, a giant tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma. A day later, she received an e-mail from Team Rubicon asking if she’d be interested in participating in the relief operation. “It felt like Clay was telling me to go,” she recalled.
So she did, first for a week, then for a month. She reveled in the grueling work, in the opportunity to help people, in the camaraderie. It was Army life, minus the insurgents. A year later, when the tornado hit central Arkansas, she readily agreed to join the operation from her new home in Oklahoma City. “For me, helping other people is how I help myself,” she said. “This is therapeutic. It’s the best kind of medicine there is. I don’t need all of those pills if I can come and give hope to someone.”
The night before she led the team to clear out the Hunters’ lot, she was struck with a migraine. She didn’t sleep more than an hour. The next morning, although she projected a calm and disciplined demeanor, the lack of rest caught up with her. She forgot to deliver a safety briefing to her team until midday. But once they finished at the Hunters’ and moved on to a house whose roof had been smashed by a falling tree, which required her team to bring out the chain saws, she had regained her focus. Anyone using a saw, she insisted, had to wear a hard hat, goggles, and bright orange safety chaps.
She hoisted herself onto the roof carrying a tarp and a bucket of nails to seal the opening. Then she grabbed an ax and began splitting logs from the fallen tree. It wasn’t a service Rubicon typically performed, but Gavell knew that Maxine Coughlin, the seventy- three-year-old widow who lived in the house, depended on firewood to keep warm in the winter, and there was no way she could chop the logs herself.
Gavell split log after log in a gully next to Coughlin’s garage, working herself into a frenzy. Her breath quickened and sweat dripped onto a pink bandana under her hard hat, but she refused to stop until the entire forty-foot-tall tree had been divvied up into chunks of firewood.
When she finally put down the ax, she noticed a faded and tattered American flag next to Coughlin’s door. The following morning, Gavell returned with a new one and presented it to Coughlin. The gray-haired woman embraced Gavell, and they chatted on her stoop.
Coughlin explained that her late husband, who had been captured by Chinese forces during the Korean War, had insisted upon displaying the Stars and Stripes in front of their house. The flag was his, and she had kept it flying, despite its threadbare condition, to honor him.
Gavell told her she didn’t need to remove it, that she could keep the replacement inside the house. But Coughlin said she wanted to display the new one to honor the young veterans who had covered her roof, cut her trees, and chopped her wood. She pointed at members of Gavell’s team.
“After everything you have been through in the wars, you still want to help people,” she said. “All of you make us proud to be Americans.”