As thousands of volunteers help the victims of Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey, military veterans are discovering a real need for a sense of mission.
Former troops who have been cleaning up and rebuilding say that volunteering helps them as much as it supports the local residents.
A group of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans chain-saw a huge spruce tree, hung up on the wires in front of Sami McFarlanes’ house off Rockaway Beach Boulevard in Queens.
Sandy hit Rockaway Beach, Queens, with the worst combination of elements: flood and then fires caused by the wind and waves. The neighborhood is still dark, with too many sodden wires and downed trees to restore electricity.
McFarlanes and his family stayed through the storm, watching in fear as the water rose and fires leveled scores of homes. Now, McFarlane is trying to get his house back in habitable shape, with plenty of help.
“They are volunteers, they are doing great work for the grace of God and the country, and we really appreciate their work,” he says.
This particular group, most of them combat vets, sees camping out in a disaster zone differently: They love it. They almost need it.
“Eight of us broke off — we slept in a church last night on the second floor that we converted, just like we would in Afghanistan,” says veteran Kyle Murphy.
Murphy served as a combat medic near Kandahar, Afghanistan, last year. Now he’s one of hundreds of volunteers for a group called Team Rubicon. Two veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan founded Team Rubicon after they discovered that working in disaster aid was a lot like working in war zones — in a good way.
Ford Sypher did five deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq with a U.S. Army ranger regiment. Now he’s a regional director for Team Rubicon.
“It’s become a passion and a career path that’s fulfilled me beyond my years in the military,” he says. “It was really what I was looking for without ever knowing it.”
Sypher says he had not planned to join in any sort of veterans groups when he got out.
“But I knew I was missing something. … I took different contract jobs, I was in school. But there was the applied, the working with a group of individuals you could trust at all times, whose actions you could just predict,” he says.
Sypher says getting back into a chaotic environment with a clear and worthwhile mission helps with the transition to civilian life better than any therapy. And plenty of vets say they need that pretty badly.
Murphy, the combat medic, helps clear out a flood-damaged basement. He doesn’t mind the manual labor. Anyhow, at the moment, he can’t get a job that lets him use his medical skills — they don’t translate into civilian qualification.
“I did eight chest tubes, 51 intubations in Afghanistan. You come back to the U.S., I’m not even allowed to give an IV. I can’t do anything,” he says.
He plans to go to school and get qualified as a paramedic, but in the meantime he’s volunteering for as many relief missions with Team Rubicon as he can.
“Working with Marines again and Army and Air Force … it’s almost as gratifying as working out over there.”