Editor’s note: The following story by Veterans United’s Levi Newman details his experience with Team Rubicon and the cleanup efforts the group volunteered for in Moore, Okla., following the tornado in May 2013.
When I joined Team Rubicon to help provide disaster relief in Moore, Okla., I volunteered with the assumption that I knew what disaster relief was all about.
I knew we’d work hard, that the sun would bake sweat and blood into our shirts. I knew that soldiers and Marines would debate ad nauseum which branch is tougher. And I knew that the community, and more importantly, the families within, could gain a bit of hope from our actions.
I apparently knew nothing.
I didn’t know that those tired, aching muscles would gain new life every morning we passed the smiling face or waving hand of a person we’d helped the prior day. I found out that, for every home I helped dig out of the rubble, I had actually been unearthing things I hadn’t felt in a very long time — peace and purpose.
Like many others, I suffer from anxiety brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder. My responses to anxiety are common: I become overwhelmed in large crowds, and most times I have to force myself to join social gatherings, even those hosted by friends. It can be mentally exhausting, especially when I work in a field where I interact with many people.
But those feelings didn’t haunt me when I was with Rubicon, not even in the beginning. And since leaving Moore, my anxiety has become substantially more manageable, and I’ve felt more confident and inspired than ever before.
When my wife asked how being exhausted and filthy for a week gave me relief, I just smiled and gave her the only answer I could think of.
“I can’t explain it. It just did,” I said. Maybe I can give you a better answer.
The Road to Recovery
It’s hard not to begin with Team Rubicon.
This group of philanthropic veterans not only supplied with me a great mission to help others, but gave me a sense of camaraderie I haven’t felt since I left the Army in 2008. The veterans of Team Rubicon surrounded me, and they spoke my language, welcomed me to the group and accepted me for exactly who I am: a tattooed, somewhat foul-mouthed guy that is quick to crack a joke and for the hard job. Team Rubicon became more than just a disaster response organization, they’re an extended family.
The work was also rewarding. By the end of every day, my back hurt, my shoulders were sore and my skin was on fire from the fiberglass insulation — but it was a great feeling. I have spent so many days recently sitting behind a computer and typing up a story, that I had forgotten what it meant to physically toil. I may not have enjoyed all those rough days when I was a soldier, but I sure miss those days now.
Finally, and most importantly, were the people we’d met. People from all over the country were there to lend a hand. Some worked on houses next to us, others offered free food to anyone with an empty stomach. One thoughtful man even pulled a cooler behind his bicycle so he could supply workers with washcloths soaked in ice water. One man and his wife, both in their late 60s, stopped me to ask why I traveled nine hours “just” to help them. I gave them an answer that I picked up from fallen Marine, Travis Manion: “If not me, then who?”
Oklahomans are people in need, just as I am. They needed help starting over in their neighborhood, and I needed help finding purpose. Marine Corps veteran and Team Rubicon team leader JJ Selvig said it best:
I say it every time I go on a deployment, I don't do it for the pictures and I don't do it for the thanks. The reality of it is that I should be thanking each and every one of the residents I helped — the new faces that I see day in and day out — for giving me an opportunity to continue a service and purpose I felt I had lost when I left the Marine Corps.
For me, the key to unlocking a sense of purpose and releasing my anxiety is what we in the Army call ‘Selfless Service.’ One of the seven values, I never knew that after I left the service that I would feel the need to continue to serve others, but apparently I was wrong.
I’m not saying that volunteering to put someone’s house back together will help you with your own stress, but I believe it’s something to think about. If you are a veteran like Selvig and I, check out Team Rubicon. If not, then pick a cause or just start volunteering in your community. Maybe it can help you too.
For more info on finding help after natural disasters, check out: 5 Steps for VA Borrowers After Disaster.