Through hell and high water, occasionally, a moment of levity floats through. Tyler Clement was ankles deep in the suck the other day when another volunteer with Team Rubicon in Baton Rouge, a plugger named Chad, spotted the LSU hat on top of his head.
Chad was wearing an Arkansas cap at the time. Old scores. Old scars.
“He gave me a hard time,” Clement recalled. “And I gave him a hard time.”
And back and forth they went, the way two old dogs stake claims on a corner fire hydrant.
“Well,” Clement finally cracked, “at least you’re not an Alabama fan.”
With that, they both laughed, cursed Nick Saban silently, and went back to the grind.
“At our core, it’s a military veteran organization, a non-profit,” Clement said. “We all wear grey. But we come from green.”
They come from purple and gold, red and white, hands of different colors pulling on the same rope.
And it’s ironic: Wisconsin plays LSU in Green Bay on Sept. 3, the jewel of an opening weekend fit to be crowned, and yet the Badger who might be helping to impact the most lives in Baton Rouge this month and has nothing to do with the game itself.
Jake Wood co-founded Team Rubicon on a mantra and a mission: Individuals foolish enough to think they can change the world and smart enough to have a chance. The fearless, the bright, the headstrong, the stubborn, the willing.
All of which neatly sums up Wood, 6 feet 6 with a chin cut from Asgard, a former Wisconsin offensive lineman who lettered in 2003 and ’04 and an ex-Marine sniper who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He played through two dislocated shoulders. He commandeered a squad of 12 men in Fallujah. Foolish enough to think he could change the world, smart enough to have a chance, and tough enough to take the crap it dishes out.
“He’s kind of a larger-than-life character,” said Clement, a Rubicon volunteer, Army veteran and LSU alum. “When he walks into a room, people kind of take notice. He definitely has what we call in the military, ‘a commanding presence.’”
In January 2010, that ‘commanding presence’ — who liked to crack that his most notable Big Ten accomplishment was serving as future NFL tackle Joe Thomas’ backup — led a medical team with fellow Leatherneck William McNulty into Port-au-Prince three days after an earthquake rocked Haiti.
“He’s a CEO who doesn’t just talk the talk,” said Bobbi Snethen, a communications officer with Team Rubicon, a veteran-based non-profit that has deployed to more than 120 disaster sites over the last six years, from Chile and Pakistan to, more recently, the flooding in Louisiana. “(Wood) was the one who rounded up eight volunteers and (took steps) to take that team to Haiti. We aim to be the best disaster responders in the world.”
The name “Rubicon” refers to Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon river in 49 B.C., an act that became a euphemism for passing the point of no return. In addition to providing assistance, Team Rubicon’s dictum is to integrate veterans looking to use the skills honed in the field — organization, teamwork, preparedness, leadership, efficiency, medical training — toward community service and disaster relief. Re-purposing with a purpose.
“Our former slogan,” said Snethen, who, like Wood, is a Wisconsin alum, “was ‘Bridging The Gaps.’”
Some laymen describe Team Rubicon, or TR, as the Red Cross with less red tape. With 55 staffers and more than 35,000 trained volunteers organized, FEMA style, and based in different regions, TR’s goal is to set up a base of operations at a disaster site within 24 hours of notification.
Snethen says TR currently has 23 volunteer members in grey shirts on the ground in Baton Rouge right now — they’ve dubbed the mission “Operation Geaux Big” — with with more than 300 signed up for deployment. Tyson Foods provided a truck, and a nearby Home Depot cleared out some of its parking lot for space.
“What really a lot of people don’t understand is,” Snethen said, “what do they need to do next?”
Which is where TR comes in: Cleaning, assisting in demolition work, mucking out basements, helping local authorities where needed, navigating the suck.
“In the suck” is the military term for where you don’t want to be, even though you have to be: the armpit’s armpit, the worst of the worst.
Baton Rouge is at the center of the suck right now, and not by choice. The Red Cross has termed this month’s flooding the worst natural disaster on American soil since Superstorm Sandy laid waste to the Eastern seaboard in 2012.
Heavy rains and localized flooding have killed at least 13 — “By the first degree, you know someone who was flooded, and by the second degree, you know somebody who passed away,” said Clement, a longtime Baton Rouge resident — and displaced thousands.
Local authorities on Sunday reported 60,642 homes damaged or destroyed, with more than 102,000 registering for federal aid. As of last Saturday night, nearly 3,000 were reported to still be living in local shelters. The Livingston and Ascension parishes, south and east of Baton Rouge, have been hit the hardest.
“I think the measure was (that) we had 31 inches of rain in a 24-hour or 48-hour period,” Clement said, “and it’s just an immense amount of rain just in one concentrated area.
“The people here are — I won’t say we are used to this, because few have ever experienced anything like this — but I will say the people here are very resilient people. And maybe that’s some function of the reporting that’s gone out. Because people have grown accustomed to being more self-sufficient after all the hurricanes we get hit with. There’s a very short window where we have to react. You do what you have to do.”
Volunteers with fishing boats, duck boats and flat boats dubbed themselves the “Cajun Navy” and hit the streets to try and facilitate the rescue efforts. Citizens went to social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to provide emergency alerts or to request aid and supplies.
The father of one of Clement’s good friends went out to try and help. He never came back, and his body was discovered downriver some three or four days later. Another family friend is pregnant, and her immediate network — brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents — lost everything.
The Clements’ neighborhood is dry, one of several blessings they go to bed counting each night. They’re donating whatever newborn and toddler items they can spare, given that the family has a set of 6-month-old quadruplets sleeping at home. Or trying to.
“I’ll be honest with you: I bleed purple and gold. I love LSU football season,” said Clement, the chief operations officer with a tech firm in Baton Rouge. “But it’s one of the farthest things from my mind right now. Because we still have people in shelters. There are still people that are 10 minutes away from our houses that are living in shelters and needing whatever the Red Cross can get to them, that have nothing.
In Baton Rouge, where pride and passion for the Tigers flows like fine wine from generation to generation, a big game never felt so … small.
“In my personal opinion,” Clement said, “we’re just not there.”
They’ll get there. It might take months. Might take a year. But thanks to hands seen and unseen, from Madison to the bayou, they’re starting to bridge the gaps, wading slowly out of the suck and into the light.
For more information on Team Rubicon, or to donate toward Operation Geaux Big, visit https://fundraise.teamrubiconusa.org/campaign/gulf-coast-2016/c91387 or www.TeamRubicon.com
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler