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Meet the Veterans Launching Nonprofits to Change the World

Veterans starting nonprofits is nothing new, but Team Rubicon's relief mission is one of a kind.
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In honor of Veterans Day, I'll be profiling three nonprofit organizations founded by veteran-entrepreneurs who returned from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today Inc. looks at Team Rubicon, an aid organization founded by veterans of the U.S. Marines.

In January 2010, U.S. Marine Corps veterans Jake Wood and William McNulty stared a catastrophic problem in the face.

In the immediate wake of the Haitian earthquake that month, aid organizations were stymied by reports of insecure conditions on the ground. Wood, who had been a Marine scout-sniper and left the military just months before, posted on Facebook that he wanted to travel to Port-au-Prince and could use his security and medical experience to help.

After viewing the post, McNulty was eager to sign on. A veteran of Marine Corps infantry and intelligence, he knew Wood via blogs and a few Skype conversations they'd had in which they discussed business ideas. However, they had never met in person before. 

Through the Jesuit high school he'd attended, McNulty met a Jesuit missionary in Haiti, who desperately needed a medical team to treat men, women, and children injured in the earthquake. Suddenly the veterans realized this would be their mission. 

Team Rubicon

McNulty and Wood set out just days after their first conversation, and the two men shook hands for the first time when they landed in the Dominican Republic. With a small team of firefighters and an interpreter, they planned to cross the border and reach the Jesuit compound in Port-au-Prince.

"We started as a team of four and picked up four more who were self-deploying," McNulty said. "By the end of 18 days, we had 60 individuals who had treated 3,000 Haitians and we did everything from delivering babies to surgical debridements to amputations."

Three years later, their small relief effort has grown into Team Rubicon, an organization with 12,000 volunteers across the United States that has conducted 45 other relief missions in China, Burma, South Sudan, and the U.S. itself.

A Tradition of Service

There's nothing new about U.S. soldiers returning from war and starting veterans' organizations. In the wake of the Civil War, Union veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic, one of the first and most powerful organized lobbying groups in the country. (The group dissolved upon the death of the last Union veteran in 1956.)

Around the turn of the last century, soldiers who had fought in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War launched the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Then after World War I, veterans led by Army Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the former president, launched the American Legion.

While the American Legion and VFW still count millions of veterans as members, some of the entrepreneurial veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have launched smaller, more nimble organizations with a focus on continued service and community.

Mission Changes

Barely a year into its history, Team Rubicon suffered a great tragedy that forced its founders to take a hard look at what they hoped to accomplish.

In March 2011, one of the group's original members, Clay Hunt, who had been with Wood in Iraq, committed suicide.

Besides their personal grief, Wood and McNulty realized they were facing another incredible problem, namely PTSD and the epidemic of veteran suicides. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, on average 22 U.S. veterans take their own lives every single day.

"We took a really hard look at our organization, and what it takes to continue to serve," McNulty said. "We shifted focus from a disaster relief organization, and became a veterans service organization that just happens to be really good with humanitarian response."

Beyond American Problems

Last year, during Team Rubicon's response to Hurricane Sandy, they were joined by a half-dozen veterans of Afghanistan from Norway.

"We fought with 38 countries in Iraq and Afghanistan," McNulty said. "They told us, 'Look guys, PTSD is not an American problem. Veterans from around the world are suffering from these same issues.'"

As a result, Team Rubicon's big goal for 2014 is to develop a plan to replicate the organization's mission and success with groups of veterans in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Norway, "and all these other countries that we fought and bled with," said McNulty. 

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Last updated: Nov 8, 2013

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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