By Megan Anderle, Editor and Contributing Writer
“It doesn’t hurt? At all???” I ask Pam Gieselman in disbelief as she’s getting a black-and-red diamond inked on her wrist.
“Nope!” she peeps back. Gieselman is surprisingly perky despite having a sharp needle embedded in her right wrist. She’s there with several of her new friends. It’s their first day of fellowship training.
She’s at the salon. The artists at Hollywood Stars Tattoo in Los Angeles have inked this logo on many members before.
“They bring a great energy in here,” Kana Burns, a manager and tattoo artist, told me. “A lot of people don’t realize this, but tattoo artists are often nervous when giving a tattoo. It’s permanent art you’re putting on someone else’s body.”
“These guys put us at ease though,” he added.
Who are these guys? They’re a band of hoodie-clad, chiseled, tattooed brothers (and sisters) with a powerful sense of duty to help people who are in trouble.
They’re a cult. But without the SoulCycle membership. No, they’re a cult of protagonists who are putting a penchant for order and methodology to use in disaster areas.
They’re an early-stage, 120-hour-a-week tech startup with an impending IPO. But on steroids.
They’re a bunch of people who have struggled intensely to find themselves and make meaning of a world that’s downright inscrutable, especially for military veterans who have likely seen far more devastation than most people can muster.
They’re Team Rubicon. They’re badasses. And the founder, Jake Wood, has cultivated an incredible team of 30,000 loyalists across the world, a following as fervent as Nike’s, who put their lives on the line to fly to Nepal and Texas to dig people, things, memories out of rubble and put the pieces back together.
Wood impulsively volunteered in Haiti with a few buddies from the Marines after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged the nation in 2010. Wood, who had left the Marine Corps a few months before, treated countless victims, often at camps deemed too dangerous for other aid organizations to access.
While in Haiti, Wood and his friend Will McNulty decided they’d build a small network of 300 or so veterans and doctors.
So when they got back to the States, they formalized the group as a nonprofit. Today, the vast majority of TR members are volunteer former military, with the skills a first responder needs in an areas like Nepal after an earthquake or Texas after flooding. Team Rubicon also has a handful of full-time, paid staff members who work out of the organization’s Los Angeles office.
What keeps Wood going? The memory of a friend, Clay Hunt, who turned a gun on himself in 2011. Hunt struggled intensely after deploying to *** and Afghanistan but found a renewed sense of purpose in Team Rubicon.
Hunt really wanted Team Rubicon to be his full-time job after he left the military, but his skill set didn’t fit what the nonprofit needed at the time.
But who is Clay Hunt, exactly? He’s a tattoo on a stranger’s wrist. A shoulder. A calf. An intangible force that bonds nine people who never knew him. A larger-than-life figure who thousands have thought of before diving into the wreck.
“I feel a sense of loss for someone I never knew,” Pam Gieselman, a Clay Hunt fellow, said. “It’s such a strange thing to explain to someone who’s not part of the organization, but he’s at the forefront of our minds without us even knowing him.”
On the first day of the Clay Hunt fellow training, the nine fellows are taking Myers-Briggs personality tests to get to know themselves and playing basketball to get to know each other. I’m trying to get to know Clay Hunt, but it’s impalpable. Wood is the only one at the training who knew him personally. And he won’t say very much about Hunt.
“It’s almost a big joke,” Wood says when the cameras are off, describing his friend’s “sheepish personality that drove women crazy.” The good-looking kid who got him in trouble in Ranger school. The “lady killer” who Wood can talk about for hours if he has a few drinks.
He’s the guy who would have gotten a kick out of the fact that people have tattoos for him and wear shirts in his honor. Because at his core, Hunt was a humble, good guy “who just wanted to help people,” Woods says. “But he’s become almost mythical.”
Hunt had ink like the other fellows do. The famous Oscar Wilde quote “Not all who wander are lost.”
Hunt represents the invisible wounds of war — the feelings of isolation, purposelessness and sheer trauma — that enshroud a veteran coming home after nine long months overseas. The night sweats and violent nightmares of another green-on-blue attack. The embraces from family and friends that feel foreign. The fireworks and thunder that sound like gunshots. The war that never really leaves someone who has served.
“None of us knew Clay, but we all know Clay,” says Michael Davidson, a training and programs coordinator at Team Rubicon.
Hunt represents what “the tough guys” don’t talk about. He represents what the military has struggled to address, with a consistent suicide rate of roughly 300 a year.
But Wood is trying to change that. He pushed a suicide prevention bill, The Clay Hunt Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in February. The act calls for third-party evaluations of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ mental health care and suicide prevention programs and more collaboration between the VA and nonprofit mental health organizations. It also provides resources for struggling veterans.
“I never would have imagined that moment to come,” Wood says, calling the moment it was signed into law “surreal.”
An organization, especially one like Team Rubicon, is the sum of its parts. To understand TR in its entirety, we need to dig into the people who continue suiting up, in spite of what they’ve already experienced.
“I will forever be a Clay Hunt fellow,” Gieselman says with self-assured conviction, staring directly into a camera lens. Moments before she was joking with our video guys about looking fat on camera, nervous as anyone who takes a seat beneath the white lights.
Gieselman grew up thinking she was stupid. School was difficult. She couldn’t figure out what she was good at.
But seeing raw footage of the first Gulf War on the news when she was 5 years old had a significant effect on her. She wanted to help.
So when she turned 17, Gieselman enlisted in the military, serving as an intelligence analyst. She never deployed, though, and as a result felt like she hadn’t given as much as other soldiers had. When she left the military after six years, she didn’t feel like a veteran, and she didn’t feel like a civilian.
“I couldn’t see outside of myself,” she says. “I needed to start something new.”
Then one day, while perusing celebrity gossip on People.com as she had so many days before, Gieselman came across a profile on Team Rubicon and their work. The organization immediately piqued her interest.
Little did she know, on that day, she found her family and a new sense of purpose.
Gieselman has deployed with TR five times, most recently to Marseilles, Illinois, in June when there was flooding.
“Team Rubicon takes all the best stuff about being in the military and throws away all the ***,” she says of her peers’ spirit of service and the organization’s lack of bureaucracy. “Veterans stick together, no matter where or when you served, but Team Rubicon are like veterans on crack.”
Jon Connors has fears like the rest of us; losing a loved one, being a bad husband, failing at work. But the fear of not fitting in has been his biggest fear.
“After I got out of military, I was always looking for camaraderie and brotherhood, another place to belong, which I lost,” he says.
Connors tried to fill the void by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, church groups and an Irish fraternal organization. He looks back on these memories with fondness, “but there was always something missing,” he says.
Connors served in the military in the ’90s, during peacetime. He got out at a time when defense budgets were being slashed and there was no war to fight.
“I’m one of the lucky ones. I have no baggage,” he said. “I don’t travel the dark road where I have horrible things to worry about. But a horrible void was always eating away at me.”
The majority of soldiers who commit suicide never saw combat, according to the Defense Department.
“These people never got to prove themselves or contribute everything they thought they would,” he says.
Team Rubicon gave Connors the sense of belonging he searched for years to find. In April, he deployed to Nepal, where a devastating earthquake shattered the nation. It was a remarkably humbling experience.
“You get to a country devastated by massive earthquakes, ready to help local folks, and they insist on preparing you breakfast and lunch,” he recalls. “It puts life in a perspective you never thought you could see.”
It changed his perspective on life so much that a few months ago, he got a tattoo with the TR logo that says “CHFP 2015” for the Clay Hunt Fellows Program. He got it while on vacation with his wife.
“It’s on my leg so that while wearing the notorious TR ‘silkies,’ which are absurdly short shorts with our logo, the tattoo can be seen,” he said. Connors is getting a second tattoo on the other leg that will say his region, Region II.
Today, Connors is 100 percent, pure gratitude. A man who never stops saying “thank you.” When you meet him, he’s quick to show you his Instagram account, which is filled with photos of his 5-year-old son, Jack, and his many adventures skateboarding, leaping off diving boards and standing coyly beside the love of his life, Sophie, a blue-eyed beauty with light brown hair. Connors brags about the hundreds of followers his son has amassed and affectionately refers to the series of photos as “Daily Cup o’ Jack,” which he hashtags across all of his social accounts.
“I’m one of the old guys you see out with a skateboard and beard,” he says. “I don’t have the same ideas of fun as I did, say, 20 years ago, when it was all about going out, getting drunk and getting crazy. Now it’s all about getting crazy with my son and having him experience the world.”
He’s grateful for his wife, a successful sales executive who’s five months *** with their second child, for his experiences with Team Rubicon and for the organization’s “pure ethos” that make his job as a communications manager “easy.” In fact, Connors uses the word “easy” fairly often when describing where he is in life, thanks to his job, family and all the wonderful people he surrounds himself with.
Inside the brain of a Clay Hunt Fellow
The qualities Team Rubicon looks for in a Clay Hunt fellow are “dedication, followership, leadership, humility and motivation,” Davidson says. “It’s a lengthy process to narrow that down.”
He said he looks for “folks who are already rock star members of Rubicon; team players, leaders and people who have a lot of growth potential.”
On a macro level, the type of person who joins the military, Team Rubicon or becomes a Clay Hunt fellow has a higher altruistic value system than most people —finding meaning in putting the needs of others before their own, according to Nathan Graeser, a community liaison at University of Southern California’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families.
“When you leave a service job like that and enter the civilian world, you don’t always find something to replace that,” Graeser said.
As Davidson aptly put it, “you know who you are when you put on the uniform, but when you take it off, you lose your identity.”
A tattoo is a way to tell a story when the uniform comes off. Veterans have a lot of stories to tell, which could explain why so many of them have tattoos. More than 36 percent of current and former military members have ink, compared with 20 percent of the general population, according to a Fox News poll.
“There’s this warrior culture around tattoos,” Graeser said. “People have been marking themselves for a very long time — you mark your tribe, the people you lost — it’s pretty common.”
There are few studies that examine why people get tattoos and the aftereffects, but we’ve been getting tattooed for thousands of years. The5,000-year-old Iceman, Oetzi, uncovered in the Alps, has tattoos that may have displayed his identity or magical thinking, or worked to relieve, physically or psychosomatically, his local aches and pains, according to Psychology Today. It’s impossible to know exactly why Oetzi had tattoos back then.
And today, there’s no single, definitive reason why some people choose to get tattoos. But it’s often a deeply personal decision.
Veterans I spoke with who have multiple tattoos say that the process of preparing for the tattoo, having a needle in their skin and the healing process in which the skin flakes off is cathartic. Heavily tattooed people, especially those who have gone through a traumatic experience, might feel a release while getting ink. The physical pain of getting a tattoo cuts through the emotional numbness associated with trauma. People getting tattoos feel in control again — they know what to expect and what’s going on their bodies.
Getting a tattoo might also serve as a rite of passage, marking an important event in life. Gieselman got hers while at Clay Hunt training. Jerome Deniz and Justin Rigdon, two other Clay Hunt fellows, got TR tattoos while deployed in Wimberley, Texas, when there was flooding.
“One of the first thoughts I had when I landed in Austin, Texas, to head to Wimberley was about when and where would I get my TR tattoo. Then it hit me,” Deniz said. “What better place to do it than on a Team Rubicon operation?”
Despite the positives that can come from getting ink, tattoos never heal the invisible wounds of war. Tattooed or not, it’s common for a former service member to feel a lack of purpose and a sense of isolation.
“I rarely talk to people who get out and don’t feel isolated,” Graeser said. Not being able to get help is another issue. “You’ll call one person and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m not the person to help with this.’ Then you’ll get transferred to another person who will say the same thing.”
According to the “State of the American Veteran,” a study conducted by USC’s School of Social Work, more than half of post-9/11 veterans and 40 percent of pre-9/11 veterans report that they do not know where to go to get help.
Then there’s the stigma associated with getting help. More than a third of post-9/11 veterans believe they can handle the problem on their own or have difficulty getting an appointment. And 1 in 5 post-9/11 veterans report concerns that treatment will not remain confidential or that seeking care might harm their career, according to the study.
Team Rubicon’s leadership is well aware of these statistics and partnered withGive an Hour, a national nonprofit organization providing free mental health services to members of the military. Dane Frost, a clinical specialist at Give an Hour, works with TR and has built a peer-to-peer support curriculum for members.
Frost started at Team Rubicon as a volunteer. Because of his background in counseling military while he served, Frost used to field calls from distressed TR members. He’d make assessments and then connect them with a nearby health care provider who he thought would be a fit for the person’s individual needs.
His role and impact on the organization has grown substantially since he joined a few years ago, and he has created an entire network of health care providers who know how to help Team Rubicon members specifically.
“Usually I look for therapists who are part of Rubicon already,” Frost says. “It lessens the stigma around getting help for members, and they get better care this way because they provide culturally competent care.”
Another initiative of Frost’s: teaching a weekend-long Applied Suicide Interventions Skills Training that educates TR members on how to aid fellow members who might be at risk. The goal is to have between 100 and 200 trained people in every region who are available 24/7 to help Rubicon members.
“It was born out of a discussion with Jake and other people from the program about the changing ethos of TR, to become a community of care, where you watch out for your brothers and sisters,” he says. “There has been a great deal of interest from volunteers in getting that training.”
These approaches are meant to remedy the ways in which health is often treated in the military, Frost says.
“Soldiers are ingrained, from day 1, to ignore the pain and take a Motrin,” he says. “It’s not conducive for asking for help when you really need it. Then you have doctors who say they only see veterans who have eight stress fractures or broken arms or legs.”
What does Team Rubicon stand for?
Team Rubicon is an organization that is extremely self-aware. Its mission statement is clear: to “unite the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams.” The word “Rubicon” references Julius Caesar’s risky decision to cross a river in northeastern Italy and march on Rome — an allusion to dangerous TR deployments. Its slogan, “bridge the gap,” has multiple meanings: TR’s relief between the moment a disaster happens and the point at which most aid organizations respond; the crucial window following a disaster when victims have traditionally been without outside aid, and finally, the gap between military and civilian life.
This mission and the organization’s values are ingrained in all Clay Hunt fellows, who can articulate clearly that these are the reasons why they’re proud to be part of the program.
If you walked inside Team Rubicon’s headquarters in El Segundo, California, you’d think you were visiting a tech startup’s office. There are kegs, pool tables, standing desks and random exercise equipment.
But all of this is located inside a corporate, beautifully marble-floored building with 24-hour security. Tenants aren’t allowed to roam the premise in fitness gear, despite the fact that there’s a gym in the building. So it’s odd that these people, with their sleeves of tattoos, pink hair and off-color banter, live inside a building that could easily be located on Wall Street.
“We’re like the redheaded stepchildren,” Bobbi Snethen, on TR’s communications team, told me.
Something tells me she meant much more than Team Rubicon’s physical location.