When he was just 7 years old, Jake Wood decided he wanted to help victims of war.
It started when he visited Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp in Germany where members of his family were forced to live during World War II. He saw the barren cells where people had once slept and the chilling areas where they were put to death.
As he looked over all the terrible aspects of the camp, he wished he'd been there to save people from suffering. In that moment, he decided to dedicate his life to helping people in distress — and that he'd do it by joining the military.
So in 2005, after graduating from college, he joined the Marine Corps and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
But when he returned home, despite having received awards for his many accomplishments as a sergeant, he didn't exactly find a long list of jobs that called for the skills he'd developed while serving.
The job hunt wasn't the only challenge Wood faced as a veteran returning to civilian life.
He went from spending 24 hours a day in a community with like-minded individuals to feeling isolated among civilians who couldn't relate to his experiences.
This transition has caused many veterans to lose their sense of purpose; the path they've been on for so long has ended, and they no longer feel like they're making a difference in the world.
But here's the thing: Veterans' skills are incredibly useful. They can be integral to so many nonmilitary-related situations, especially those that involve saving lives.
Wood got a huge reminder that his skills were still needed after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in January 2010. The quake killed hundreds of thousands of people and completely devastated Haitian residents.
In many places, survivors were left without food, clean water, and medical aid, but the damage surrounding them was too difficult for emergency workers to get through safely.
Wood, however, had faced dangerous terrain like it before. And he'd been trained to see his way through it.
Armed with skills he learned in the Marines, Wood headed straight to the heart of the disaster in Haiti along with fellow Marine William McNulty and six other volunteer veterans and first responders.
Jake Wood and Team Rubicon. Image by Kirk Jackson, used with permission.
The Haitian government and aid organizations warned Wood's team not to go into the treacherous areas that needed the most help. However, despite the risks to their personal safety, they continued on their mission.
Thanks to their persistence, they were able to treat thousands of earthquake survivors who needed medical support and other aid. While the task had seemed impossible to other aid organizations, Wood and his team had just the right set of skills to reach some of the most vulnerable people.
With that in mind, Wood and McNulty started an organization called Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster response group.
Team Rubicon volunteers working during recovery efforts. Photo by Jeremey Hinen, used with permission.
During his experience in Haiti, Wood had realized that the instability and resource limitations following a natural disaster are pretty much the same conditions that troops deal with in Iraq and Afghanistan. Knowing how to work as a team, assess risks, and provide emergency medical care is exactly how the troops got through those conditions — and exactly what disaster zones need.
So, with Team Rubicon, veterans work with medical professionals to bring first aid, supplies, and manual labor to help communities recover as quickly as possible after they've been hit by a natural disaster.
A member of Team Rubicon helps out after 2015 tornadoes in Oklahoma City. Photo by Kirk Jackson, used with permission.
They completed four missions in their first year in 2010, and that number has risen ever since. In 2017 alone, they carried out 61 operations. The number of participants has ballooned as well, from that small team of eight in Haiti to more than 70,000 volunteers in 2017.
The Team Rubicon veterans have brought this invaluable training to areas such as Puerto Rico, where they removed debris and distributed medical supplies to survivors of Hurricane Maria. In Houston, they rescued residents stranded by flooding after Hurricane Harvey. In places like Honduras, they’ve helped teach local paramedics cardiac life support skills. All in all, Team Rubicon’s work has helped saved countless lives around the world, and here in the United States.
Team Rubicon responds after a tornado in East New Orleans. Photo by Jeremey Hinen, used with permission.
And thanks to support from brands like Macy’s, they’ll be able to reach even more communities. As part of Macy’s July 4 Give Back campaign, you can get 25% off your purchase in stores or online by donating $3 at checkout. $1 of each $3 donation will benefit Team Rubicon by helping deploy 35 Strike Teams on domestic operations to help survivors of disasters over the coming year.
But you’re not just supporting a disaster relief organization. Thanks to Team Rubicon, veterans can come together and use their skills for vital missions, which in turn helps remind them that they're valued members of an indispensable team. It's also a chance for veterans to live a fulfilling life after military service, surrounded by empathetic colleagues.
Team Rubicon rescuing Texans stranded by the Hurricane Harvey flooding. Photo by Kirk Jackson, used with permission.
Working with Team Rubicon provides that feeling of community so many veterans miss once they return to civilian life.
It also reminds veterans that they have so much to offer after leaving the military. The organization reports that 78% of participating veterans who were previously deployed say they've developed a greater sense of purpose.
One veteran, Richard Bly, had been struggling with symptoms of PTSD before he joined Team Rubicon. Now he says his disaster relief work has helped him step outside of his comfort zone. Today he’s shaking the hands of people whose homes he helped rebuild, and making eye contact with them — something PTSD had previously made difficult.
“Homeowners thank us, and it’s great,” Bly wrote of his experience, “but the unspoken thing about Team Rubicon is most of us get more out of it than we give, even if we show up and give our all, day after day.”
And by supporting efforts like Team Rubicon, civilians can also help veterans make healthy transitions back into nonmilitary society.
For Wood, that lifelong vision of helping others never has to end. He's grown up to be the helpful, courageous man that his 7-year-old self once dreamed of becoming.
Salute those who serve by donating at Macy's to organizations that support veteran and military families from June 28th — July 8th.