10 years ago, Team Rubicon CEO Jake Wood co-founded his organization to mobilize veterans in times of great emergency, harnessing their unique skillsets and experiences towards helping victims of sudden crises.
Today, the people of our world find ourselves amid one such crisis: the Coronavirus pandemic, which by some estimates is expected to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, hospitalize or infect millions more and debilitate our economy.
NationSwell spoke to Wood, a Council member, about how Team Rubicon’s #NeighborsHelpingNeighbors initiative has sprung into action to lead and assist aid efforts across the country, mobilizing its volunteer corps of “Greyshirts” towards the frontlines of the communities that need the most aid. We also had the chance to speak about his forthcoming book, “Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home.”
NationSwell: At time of publication, the Team Rubicon blog mentions at least 49 relief operations that are already in progress, and 44 more that are in progress. Can you speak to what those efforts look like, and what you’ve been able to accomplish so far?
Team Rubicon CEO Jake Wood: We have a medical capability that we really only deploy internationally. We’ve pivoted here to focus domestically. We have never gotten into issues like food security, food, transportation, logistics — things like that. But this is a pandemic that is crippling some of our governmental and non-governmental infrastructure. And I think we have an organization that can flex into the fight. And so that’s exactly what we’re doing. We have pivoted our entire organization into this fight.
On one end of the spectrum, we’ve been asked by various agencies, federal, state and local to help establish federal medical stations. We’re doing that in California. We’re now currently establishing, and we’ll begin operating, a 250 bed hospital in Northern California to help decompress the health care system there. We have similar requests for similar field medical hospitals in the states and cities that you can imagine. I don’t want to name them yet because none of those are for certain. We’ve been asked by some major metropolitan areas to oversee the command and coordination of quarantine shelters for homeless populations.
And then, on another end of the spectrum, we’re partnering with major national food security networks like Feeding America and Meals on Wheels. And I think that we’ll probably be assisting with operations and logistics at easily a hundred food banks by the end of this week. And then we developed guidance and protocols for how any one of our 112,000 volunteers could identify the vulnerable people in their neighborhood and assist them with their quarantine and shelter in place mandate. So if they have an elderly person on their street that may have difficulty in this time getting prescriptions or groceries, whatever. How can you safely assist that person or the single mother that suddenly just got furloughed and has two kids that she’s now the educator of at home? How do you assist that woman with walking, something as simple as walking their dog? Because she can’t do it with the two kids who need to be learning.

“Leaders should embrace the brutal reality of the situation, acknowledging the gaps that we have — but then inspire people to believe that we’re going to get through this.” — Jake Wood, Team Rubicon CEO

We’ve had over a thousand acts of service logged since we launched that. 30,000 people have gone to the website so we’re confident that we have many, many thousands of unlogged acts of service. We call it #NeighborsHelpingNeighbors.
NationSwell: How can our audience help you all with your efforts?
Wood: We’d love to have #NeighborsHelpingNeighbors amplified. We don’t want this to be a campaign that just… if it stays within just the bounds of Team Rubicon, then we failed. From the beginning, one of the objectives was, how do we inspire people to action in a way that is safe? Right? So that they’re not contributing to the spread, but rather contributing to the effective social distancing that’s actually necessary to inhibit the spread of this. So we’d love to see that get amplified. Obviously we are partnering with organizations in ways that we never would have imagined. We just signed an agreement with one of the largest healthcare systems on the East Coast to help start staffing their testing clinics. And, so for those members who have a unique organizational capacity to partner with us in this, or unique expertise or they’re retired doctor that wants to get back in the fight — we need people.
NationSwell: How can leaders of all stripes step up at a time like this? What qualities mark a good leader in a time of crisis?
Wood: It’s very rare that a leader in a moment like this is going to have the necessary competencies to be the expert, right? And so what you need to see in leaders is a certain level of humility. You need them to say, “Listen, I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know when things are going to get better. I don’t know this, that and this. What I do know is, here’s what we’ve got to do. Here’s what the experts are saying. Here’s what we can control. Here are the things that we can’t.”
Leaders should embrace the brutal reality of the situation, acknowledging the gaps that we have — but then inspire people to believe that we’re going to get through this. I think one of the challenges thus far has been convincing people that this isn’t about them, right? This is about the whole. And you have a lot of people right now who are really concerned about the social distancing and the shelter in place orders, because it impacts them personally. And we need leaders who can inspire people to think beyond the four walls of their home and think about the community at large.
I think we’ve gotten that in some places. I don’t think we’ve gotten it throughout all levels of leadership right now. It’s just — f*ck man, just shut your mouth and push somebody else up to the podium who’s actually an expert, right? And let that person have the spotlight, and you lead from behind. That’s kind of a lost art.
NationSwell: Tell us about “Once a Warrior.” What’s it about? And where did you get the idea to write it?
Wood: “Once a Warrior” is a project that I’ve been working on for over a decade. I started writing pretty extensively when I was deployed overseas with the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. And at first I wrote to keep my family and loved ones updated on what was happening. I was in Iraq during the surge in 2007 with a Marine rifle platoon. And then I was a sniper in Afghanistan in 2008. So that was when I first started writing. And then when I got back from the war, I started writing as a way of making sense of what happened and for a kind of catharsis.
And so, I’ve been writing ever since, and have at times throughout the 10 years of Team Rubicon written about moments that have happened. And I got to this point where at the conclusion of Hurricane Harvey and in our efforts there, there was… a bunch of things that just kind of came full circle for me, and I decided that I wanted to write this story of going to war and coming home.
It’s part memoir in that it’s the story of the last 15 years of my life, but it’s really intended to be bigger than that. It’s a story of about service. It’s a story about what happens to young men and women in war, and what happens when they come home and what is the role of service — continued service? Where’s the role of purpose in the lives of those young men and women as they come back into our community? So, I tell that latter part kind of through the lens of starting in building Team Rubicon and losing my best friend to suicide shortly thereafter. And watching how Team Rubicon has impacted the lives of tens of thousands of volunteers who’ve picked up a new mission and put on a new uniform over that time.
NationSwell: Your book’s publication will coincide with the 10 year anniversary of Team Rubicon. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in those 10 years? 
Wood: The first lesson would be that purpose is a powerful healing force, this powerful driving force for any human. Any human being on earth needs purpose. But I think for those who have served in the military, who have fought overseas, who’ve come home to a community that doesn’t always understand them and doesn’t always care about their service, that the lack of purpose that some people can find when they transition back to civilian life can be really detrimental to their ability to lead long and fulfilling lives.
And it’s really actually pretty easy to rediscover purpose. You give somebody a mission, you give them responsibility or you give them a challenge and they can find that purpose again. I think that the other thing that I’ve seen time and time again after hundreds and hundreds of disasters that Team Rubicon has responded to is that Americans truly do become the best version of themselves in crisis. I think we’re seeing a lot of that now play out with Covid-19. You see people having empathy for communities that they didn’t previously have an empathy for.
You see people reaching their hands out across the aisle in politics to find solutions to challenging problems. You see people crossing over to help a neighbor that they wouldn’t have even spoken to a week prior. And that’s always inspiring to see. And I think that what’s always disappointing is just how quickly we revert back to the former version of ourselves, and forget those lessons of empathy and compassion and service in community and camaraderie that it took a tornado to place at our feet.
NationSwell: You’ve stayed connected to the work over the course of a decade. How do you keep from reverting?
Wood: I mean, I guess I’ve never had in 10 years the opportunity to take a pause. My wife jokes that I never really left the military — I just kind of changed uniforms. And I think there’s some element of truth to that. But I’ve spent the last decade of my life running from crisis to crisis. I just always get re-inspired by what’s possible. Because I see these changes in people and in communities on a weekly basis and I always set myself up for disappointment. I always think the next one is going to be the one that sticks, the one where people finally learn the lesson. And maybe I’m just kind of a hopelessly optimistic about that.
NationSwell: What are you hoping that readers will take away from the book?
Wood: The book is really in three parts. The first part is my wartime experience. And what I really wanted, the stories I told from Iraq and Afghanistan to be was a more authentic and maybe vulnerable retelling of life in combat. I didn’t want to just add to the genre of guys who were thumping their chest and talking about body counts or fierce battles. I want people to know what’s really going through a young man’s mind the first time they get shot at. What are some of the those moments that people may not think about where… you start to explore what’s happening to people mentally and emotionally. How are people processing? I spend a lot of time talking about moments where I found myself losing kind of a grasp of who I was and who I wanted to be. Whether that was sensing that I was beginning to lose that empathy and compassion that I’d kind of had my entire life. Those moments where suddenly, war was becoming too familiar, too easy.
And I think those are the questions that I want people to walk away from the book wondering. What is the true cost of war for the young people we send to fight it? I think one of the things I tried to accomplish in the middle part of the book was an authenticity around my own challenges transitioning home. I think a lot of people look at me and, as a veteran with a fairly high profile, they think, “Man, the guy had it easy. He came home and he started a nonprofit that’s grown and done amazing things.” And the reality is I came home, I lost just as many friends to suicide as I lost to combat, including my best friend. I had to fold the flag and hand it to the mother of that best friend and tell her I was sorry I wasn’t there for her son. And then figure out how to pick up the pieces after that.
And I think that that last part of the book is really just about what happens when you ignite the purpose of an entire generation of veterans and challenged them to serve their community in a new way. And that’s really the story of Team Rubicon And I try to tell that story through the lens of as many of the amazing volunteers I’ve met over the years, who have this diversity of experience and backgrounds that is so compelling, but who have so much more in common than they ever have had different now or at any time in their past. And I think that’s the really powerful thing is this unifying power of that purpose and that service.
I mean, I’m excited for it. My mom thinks it’s really good.
NationSwell: It sounds like your ideal reader or readers for the book isn’t just veterans and service members, right? Who do you see as someone who can potentially take a lot away from it?
Wood: There was a big debate with the publisher and me about the timing for the release of this book. They were cautioning me from releasing it in the lead up to the election, or too close to the election itself. And I kept saying, “No. I want this to cut through the divisiveness and the vitriol that we’re undoubtedly going to hear in 2020. I want this to serve as a break that Americans can pick up this book and read something that re-inspires them about what America should be and can be.” I think the audience is anybody that is sick of hearing about how fucked up this country is. And believes that there’s a better version of this country that we can achieve. I’m hopeful that this can serve to re-inspire that sentiment among some people.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity. For more information on the NationSwell Council, please visit our splash page. You can pre-order Wood’s book, “Once a Warrior,” here.