Today Mark talks with Jake Wood (@jakewoodtr) about his experiences with leadership, the Marine Corps, and the founding of Team Rubicon—the disaster relief team made largely of former military members. He is also the author of the upcoming book called Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home.
- True leadership is love—leadership means you always have a stake in the lives of the people you’re leading
- There are different kinds of courage and while physical courage is what we generally think of, moral courage is also completely integral
- Team Rubicon serves as an inspiration for Americans, but how we respond to disasters is our choice alone
Listen to this conversation to find out more about leadership and finding your mission in life during these VUCA times.
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Hey folks. This is Mark Divine. Welcome back to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Super-stoked to have you here today.
We are going to have a very interesting conversation with Mr. Jake Wood – founder and CEO of Team Rubicon – an organization near and dear to my heart. I will introduce him more in a little moment.
But before we get started, we’re coming up on Veterans day – I think this episode will be released right on or around veterans day – some of you have heard about our initiative at the courage foundation to raise awareness and funds. And provide support to veterans who are suffering from severe post-traumatic stress you might have heard that statistic that 22 veterans a day commit suicide. Not sure how exactly accurate it is, but even if it’s close, it’s an appalling number and so we’re trying to help with that.
Now several years ago we took a bold move and we said… I challenged our tribe – and I guess that would be you if you’re listening to this – to help me do 22 million burpees to raise awareness and funds. And I thought we could do it in a year I was a little bit bold – I kind of bit off more than we could chew – but we did get to 17 million in that first year. Which was… I think… 2018.
And myself and a small cadre have been chipping away, and we’re at 21 million… let’s see 21 million, 800 000 or something like that. So we have about 200 000 burpees left to get to 22 million burpees.
We’ve raised over 300 000 dollars. We’ve supported a number of vets in the transformational program and we want to help a lot more. So this veteran’s day, I’m gonna be cranking out a thousand burpees with some friends. I’ll post some stuff on social media… I encourage you to join me and you can donate or pledge whatever amount you want per burpee – one cent, half a cent, five cents, ten cents… hundred dollars… it doesn’t really matter.
Get your team to do it. We’ve had all sorts of folk’s teams… corporate teams, football teams, individuals who just go out and recruit a few people. You can do it alone.
Go to burpeesforvets.com to get the details. Sign up so you can track your progress. Put your results in and help these vets. Because they need help, and we can do something about it. One burpee at a time. Hooyah.
So like I mentioned, Jake Wood is my guest today. Jake’s a former marine, he’s the author of the new book that’s coming out called “Once A Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home.”
That mission is the incredible organization called “Team Rubicon,”- which I’m actually soon to be a part of, which is pretty exciting for me – so we’re going to talk about that.
So through Team Rubicon, Jake and his team have recruited 130 000 volunteers, mostly vets. Originally it was geared toward helping vets find a meaning after they transitioned. By providing service again and having a team feeling… and it’s a lot of what we do at the courage foundation. We know that vets really dearly miss that.
And he’s launched over 700 operations in disaster areas in the US and overseas. Pretty cool.
In his marine career he was a scout/sniper in Iraq and Afghanistan. So super stoked, Jake, to have you here today. Thanks for your time, brother.
Jake: Yeah, thanks for having me. 22 million burpees, man? (laughing) You’re giving me some anxiety, just thinking about it.
Mark: (laughing) I know, right?
Jake: Good on you.
Mark: Most people’s jaws drop when they hear that number.
Mark: We also broke two world records the year that we did this… I committed personally to 130 000 burpees, and accomplished them.
And then we said “hey, let’s rally and do a world record attempt.” So we had a six-person team – three men and three women – do burpees for 24 hours. And so I was part of that.
And the former world record was 14 000 burpees in 22 hours. We did 36 393. And then another individual in the tribe broke the world record for most number of burpees as an individual in 12 hours.
It was just really cool to see all that energy go into it. And we didn’t take our eye off the ball. So we’re chipping away. Like I said, we have 200 000 to cross that Rubicon. And then we’ll keep it going at some level. We haven’t figured out what the future looks like. But we’ve put so much energy into that to just let it go.
Mark: So you can join us, my friend.
Jake: (laughing) Well, I’ll be good for a baker’s dozen, come next Wednesday, how about that?
Mark: (laughing) Sounds like a plan. We’ll take them. All right, Jake.
So tell us, you’re up the road in la, but is that where you’re from? Tell us a little bit about your origin years. What were your influences? What were your parents like? How did you end up in the marine corps, that kind of stuff?
Jake: Yeah, definitely not an la guy. I’m a Midwesterner by birth and in upbringing… I was born in Nebraska. Grew up actually moving around a little bit, which I think was actually pretty influential in my life. My dad was not in the military, but he was working in manufacturing and just kind of constantly getting moved around.
So I spent time in Texas, in Nebraska – we actually spent time in Europe when I was young – in Austria, which was actually a really formative experience for me for a couple years.
Came back to the Midwest when I was in elementary school. So a couple years in Illinois and then finally Iowa. And Iowa is what I consider home…
You know, pretty standard upbringing. Two awesome parents, three sisters… so a lot of female influences in my life.
Mark: So where were you in that? Were you the baby or the oldest in the middle?
Jake: So I was the third. So I’ve got two older sisters and a younger sister. Surrounded by women.
Mark: No kidding. That’s interesting.
So what was that like in terms of your ability as a young man to have a little freedom? Or did you feel more constricted? You know, usually the middle children have a little bit more lease to explore and to do things that maybe are outside of the family’s paradigm. Was that you?
Jake: I mean, I guess that was me. I don’t know if it was by birthright. You know, I played a lot of sports, I was always outdoors exploring all throughout my youth. I was that kid that would disappear on his bike during the summers as soon as the sun was up. And I had the orders from my mom to be home by the time the streetlights were on.
And in between they didn’t see a whole hell of a lot of me. I think that probably explains a lot about my independent, wanderlust spirit.
Mark: Right. So what led you toward the marine corps?
Jake: You know, I grew up with a desire to join the military. I was always fascinated by it. I often point to a story from my time when I was living in Austria… I was a young boy, six or seven years old and one weekend – we were there for two years – one weekend my parents took my sisters and I to a Nazi concentration camp called Mauthausen… just to explore.
And that was a really formative event for me – I was young enough that it was the first time that I really came to understand that true evil existed in the world. And it really touched me to see the exhibit at the camp of the liberation. When Patton’s army came in and liberated the last remaining folks.
And even though I was young it wasn’t lost on me that these soldiers had come across the Atlantic Ocean to help people they’d never met, on a continent they’d never been to. And that always just kind of stuck with me.
And so I remember always aspiring to join the military. And I think a little bit more than most kids do – I think many kids – many young boys probably go through a phase where joining the army is like something that they think would be really, really cool.
I think mine persisted and lasted a little bit longer. But then I had the opportunity to go play football in college and decided to do that instead. You know, going and playing in the NFL sounded like a lot more fun than playing army…
Turns out I was a pretty terrible football player, so I didn’t get a shot at the NFL. So when people ask me “how did you end up in the marine corps?”
Well “I didn’t end up with the green bay packers.” In fact, it really wasn’t even close. But that’s ultimately what started leading me down the path of joining. After my senior year in college.
Mark: So you joined as an enlisted guy with a college degree. What was that choice about? It’s something I’ve thought a lot about, because over 60 of seal trainees have the college degree or even more… some have masters… and there’s this real allure in the spec ops community to be enlisted, because you know, you get to bang the doors down and you get to be an operator for a much longer period of time. It’s much closer to the ground level truth.
Whereas the officer path they kind of wean you away from that after five to six years.
Jake: Yeah, there were a couple reasons I ended up enlisted. One was that door-kicker desire, you know? And I think you know when you’re 22 years old and, in my case, you’re joining the military you have kind of this foolish bravado of “oh, I want to lead men in combat. I want to you know be at the point of friction.”
And, yeah, I mean careful what you wish for right?
Jake: The second thing was I definitely explored going the officer route. And you’ll get a kick out of this – you know, I played offensive tackle at the university of Wisconsin. The number one offensive line program in the country. I was a big dude – I’m six foot six, I played at 295 pounds…
Mark: (laughing) No kidding? Holy shit.
Jake: Yeah and so I contacted an OSO – an officer selection officer – within weeks of my last game. And he showed up and maybe I’d lost 10 pounds. Maybe I was weighing 285.
And this guy looks me up and down – you know, marine corps officers are fit and trim, right? And he looks at me and he goes “how many pull-ups can you do?”
I’m like, “I don’t know, seven or eight?”
He’s like “you got to be able to do 20.”
I’m like “all right. Well hey bro, I’ll get there.”
And he goes “what’s your three-mile time?”
I said “I haven’t run three miles in six years. I’ll tell you what my 40-yard dash is.”
And then he asked me probably the most important question, he goes “have you had any injuries?”
And my career was plagued with injuries. I had my foot reconstructed; I had my shoulder reconstructed and when he heard that he goes, “kid, you’re a lot of paperwork.”
And this was 2005. There was no shortage of people who were trying to join. It was easy recruiting at that point in time.
And so he more or less never called me back.
Mark: (laughing) No kidding. He wasn’t willing to put in the work.
Jake: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. And so I walked into a marine recruiter’s office, I said “give me an infantry contract.” And he looked at me like I lost my mind.
Mark: That’s awesome. And the enlisted side didn’t care so much about the injuries? You still had to go through MEPS and get cleared of all that…
Jake: They cared, but they had their numbers to make, right? So I was waiting at the 11th hour at MEPS on the 30th of the month and literally near midnight to get a waiver from the pentagon from naval headquarters for it.
Came through at the 11th hour. And my college coaches had to submit letters on my behalf. My trainers had to submit letters on my behalf with regard to like my injuries and what I was able to do.
Mark: Most people would be surprised to hear that, you know? A college graduate, varsity football player has to really struggle to get in the military. Because they think the military will just take anyone off the streets…
Jake: Yeah, and then I get to boot camp – I’m sitting next to lance corporal schmuckatelli – I’m like “you’re giving me a hard time about getting in?”
Mark: (laughing) Exactly, right. So by the time you got the boot camp had you cut weight and improved your pull-ups, and you know…?
Jake: Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, I would say I probably lost 40 pounds in 40 days. And so I was probably down at 250. And then I went to boot camp at about 230 and I mean I tell people… my wife laughs at me, because she didn’t see it… but I’m like ”I looked like Rob Gronkowski when I went to boot camp.”
Because I had all that muscle from playing o-line and I just burned all that excess fat off. And I don’t look that good anymore, I’ll tell you that… (laughing) That’s why I ain’t doing burpees with you…
Mark: Roger that. Well it takes a lot of effort to maintain that kind of muscle mass, unless it’s your natural state, you know?
Jake: Yeah, yeah.
Mark: So tell us about what it’s like to lead as a sergeant in the US marine corps. What were some of the big lessons and “a-has” that you had, that have maybe even helped guide you today as a leader.
And by the way so people don’t know that’s one of the key positions in the marine corps – and also in the army – but especially the marine corps. I mean, the sergeant pretty much runs the shit, you know what I mean? At the ground level, with the troops, right?
Jake: Yeah, yeah. You know, it’s such a hard question because I learned so much about leadership when I was in. And I tell people, what a crucible of leadership. And often when I answer that question for people…
When I think back to my first tour which was in Iraq. And I was leading an infantry squad during the surge in 2007, at the height of the war… when I think back to that moment, if I could boil it down to one thing it’s that leadership is love, right?
Like at its simplest form leadership is love. And when you can convince the people that you’re leading that you truly care about who they are. When you can convince them that you can see things from their perspective, when you know what brought them in their life to that moment of time where they’re on your team and they’re following you. And if you can demonstrate that you actually understand what they aspire to in the future where you can share that vision with them and convince them that you’re going to do everything in your power to help them on that journey to achieve it.
So that’s love. That’s powerful.
And what’s amazing is that what that love unlocks is this sense of safety and security in those people. And it’s funny because I’ll tell this story every once in a while, about one of these early fire fights that we got in Iraq.
And in the midst of this firefight, my platoon got ambushed. And I had to take a fire team across this field. And under fire, leading four marines across the field – probably about a hundred yards of naked terrain, right?
And a couple days later I was reflecting back on it. Luckily nobody got hit.
And in thinking about that… like what led to that courage for me, it was working backwards through this idea that that courage came from this feeling of safety. And that safety came from that sense of love, right?
And so when I tell people that they say “well, what do you mean? You’re out of your mind. There was no safety on that battlefield.”
And they’re right. Like, there was mortal danger present.
But that safety is relative, right? And that safety was also it was as much psychological and emotional as it was physical. And it was born of this notion that if one of us had gone down in that field, we knew there were 13 marines that would line up to come and get us. We knew we wouldn’t be left behind. We knew we wouldn’t be left alone.
And that’s what gets people to do extraordinary things. It’s actually really simple…
Mark: It is somewhat simple, but hard to achieve. Would you call that “moral courage?” The ability to kind of create that sense of safety and security, so that you can make really, really tough calls in challenging, dangerous situations like that?
Jake: Yeah, that’s the type of courage we talk about all the time now with Team Rubicon. Moral courage, emotional courage… I think both are… on the battlefield people talk about physical courage a lot… that’s really, really important.
It’s less important in the real world – back in the business world. But moral and emotional courage are critical. Moral courage – making the right choice, putting integrity above all else…
Emotional courage and having the willingness to be vulnerable… and having the willingness to open up to your team, let them know when maybe you don’t know the right decision. Let them know when you’re uncertain about what the future holds.
Having that vulnerability. Just being able to walk into a room with your senior leaders and saying “guys, situation’s bad and I don’t know the answer.” And that can unlock a lot from your team.
Mark: I agree. It seems to me – and I’ve been reflecting on this a lot – that total courage, absolute courage really is the combination of physical, moral and emotional courage. Because any one of them without the others is one dimensional and limited, right? Like you indicated.
Physical courage just being tough and able to gut through something without the moral or the emotional courage, could get people in a lot of trouble. Including themselves.
Mark: And then moral courage – even if you have the emotional courage without the physical courage mean you’re not gonna be able to back up you know your actions…
Jake: Can’t lead yourself out of a paper bag.
Mark: Right. And emotional courage and physical courage without moral courage, means you could charge ahead doing something completely unethical and think you’re completely in line, you know what I mean?
Mark: So it really is the combination. All three need to be trained, don’t they?
Jake: Yeah. In fact it’s really dangerous if you’re lacking in one, because of all the adverse outcomes you talked about. It’s almost like it’s better to have none of them, than one or two of them.
Mark: (laughing) Yeah, just follow someone who does have them.
Jake: (laughing) Exactly.
Mark: That’s fascinating.
Mark: So, I love stories because stories help listeners really kind of connect to the principles. Are there any other really interesting stories when you scan back over Iraq or Afghanistan – your time in the marines as a sergeant – that just really jump out at you as defining moments in your career as a as a marine?
Jake: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, one of the challenges of writing a book – and I know you’ve wrote written you’re a handful – is figuring out which stories to exclude.
Mark: So true. (laughing) Because there’s a ton of them, right? No shortage of cool stories.
Jake: Yeah, and you’re thinking about all these stories that you’re not telling. And you think about “oh my god, am I doing a disservice to those people who lived those moments?”
So anyway I wrote about a handful – I really wrote about four stories from my wartime experience in the book and I’ll talk about two. Both in Afghanistan when I was working as a sniper. One I think goes to that moral and emotional courage.
So we were working in an overwatch capacity for a marine operation that was going into a village the following day. And so we inserted that night into a house. And we were watching this village.
The following morning the operation came in, and we were providing some supporting fire and it became kinetic early. Marine corps – it was a company actually – company minus – got in this little scuffle with the Taliban.
And one of the things we saw uh during that firefight – and this was common – was a Taliban leader was using children as spotters on the battlefield, right? And this Taliban leader knew that if he was observed at the radio, that we’d be authorized to kill him. And so he wasn’t using radio – he was using these kids to just run messages back and forth.
Mark: So stop there. The rules of engagement said even though you knew this was happening, you couldn’t engage that man?
Jake: Well, it was unclear at the beginning, right? So we were following different rules of engagement than ISAF the national security assistance force – but we didn’t quite have our own set. Like the special operations community did under SoCom, right?
So we were kind of in this middling ground there. And this was an ambiguous enough situation where we felt like we needed to get permission from higher. And so my team leader sought that permission. And it took a while for this to get bounced back and forth across the radio.
And eventually we got that permission, but by this time the guy disappeared off the battlefield and we missed our opportunity. And lo and behold a couple hours later we were you know moving back to our forward operating base – the engagement ended, we had some air support overhead, so we were able to walk out in daylight.
And as we’re walking out my team leader stops me – I’m walking point – and we see this guy down in the valley 200… 250 yards away. And he’s in front of these kids, right?
So he’s basically having an after-action report with these children right outside this compound wall. Unbelievable.
So we get down in the prone – we’re looking at him and in a moment of emotional vulnerability, my team leader who was on the gun looks at me and he says, “what do you think?”
And it was just this “hey, are we going to do this? Because you know the situation was, we let this guy go and there are implications for that.
Or we shoot this guy in front of these kids, right? What a terrible choice.
Mark: Pretty rough choice…
Jake: It’s a terrible choice.
Mark: Well, all these choices in combat are terrible.
Jake: They are. They are rarely ever black and white, right? And so we determined that we had to do it. And I will say that that took a lot of moral courage, right?
The shot was easy. There was no physical courage involved.
It took a lot of moral courage to make a really tough, right choice – that ultimately likely saved marines on the battlefield in days to come.
Mark: Maybe saved some kids, too.
Jake: And maybe saved some kids. I mean, just imagine the fate that these kids had.
But listen, at the end of the day, I still wrestle with that moment. And I have, throughout my life. It was such an awful circumstance…
And I fast forward then to the other story that really defined my experience. A couple months later the Taliban blew up an IED in a Marketplace that was full of civilians. Near our forward operating base.
So a bunch of civilian casualties got brought onto our fob. And many of them were kids – I don’t know why – but many of them were young kids.
And I just remember as I was sitting there treating this young boy… after the bomb exploded, they started firing indiscriminately… he had a gunshot wound in his leg. He’s like seven years old, he’s got an ak-47 you know wound through and through on his thigh.
Mark: Jeez. He got shot by his own side.
Jake: And I just sat there, and I thought “you know? I’m really proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud of everything I’ve accomplished.”
“but I don’t want this to define who I am.” And it was that moment near the end of my second tour in Afghanistan that I just decided, “you know what? I’m gonna walk out while I still have my sense of who I am intact.”
And so those were those were a couple of the formative experiences that I had. Or not experiences, but moments… moments in time, where I was really conscious of what was happening. And what I was becoming relative to it.
Mark: Right. That’s fascinating. I didn’t have the combat experience you had, but I was in Iraq and, you know, I question anybody who’s not changed by war. And who doesn’t ultimately leave war feeling repugnant about the whole experience. And the “why” behind it.
And ultimately that’s guided my training of the future warriors. To let them know or help them understand, that the warrior is the last to want to fight. And all you have to do is spend time in combat to be reminded of that.
It should be the ultimate last resource. And it’s too bad we can’t put the politicians on the front lines and have them experience what you experienced.
Jake: Yeah, no doubt about that.
Mark: Wow. That’s fascinating.
So you decided to get out. You transitioned. What was the original plan? When you got out of the marine corps?
(laughing) Did you have one? Or were you like most guys and just wing it?
Jake: Yeah, I wouldn’t say I was about to wing it… but there was a little bit of a lack of plan by design. So I was getting out in October.
Mark: This is 2008?
Jake: 2009. Yeah, late ’09. And I thought I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I had my undergraduate degree in business. Silicon Valley was taking off – there was some allure there for me because I was in California.
But I knew that if I went up to san Francisco and knocked on twitter’s door and say “hey, I’m a sniper. You should really hire me.”
Mark: (laughing) “You can really use my skills.”
Jake: Tough value proposition, right?
Mark: No doubt. Right.
Jake: So I figured I’d go get my MBA. It sounds like a good thing, because it would just give me some time and some space to decompress and build up some of the pedigree that a lot of those companies are looking for.
So I got out, I took my GMAT – I’ve always been a really good test taker – so I scored really, really high on the GMAT – the graduate school admissions test – and started to apply to school.
And the idea was I was gonna get my applications in, and then I was gonna pack a bag. And I was gonna buy a ticket around the world. You know, I was gonna fly to Australia without a plan. And then I’d end up in southeast Asia and I’d just start pecking my way across the world.
I just really loved the idea of going someplace foreign…
Mark: Where you’re not being shot at…
Jake: And not having a gun. Yeah.
And that was the plan. I actually did a lot of, you know… I was planning the logistics around that. It wasn’t a pipedream; it was what I was gonna do.
And then as I’m waiting for some of these early responses to come back for grad school – the Haiti earthquake happens…
Mark: Okay so I remember that. And it’s a big, huge humanitarian response. Or at least disaster. So you decided – and I remember reading this on the Team Rubicon kind of origin story – so you decided to gather up some of your teammates and to go do something about it.
Tell us about like how that came about. And who was your point of contact? How did you end up even getting into the country at that point? Because you weren’t being represented by the us government as a RGA or anything. You just kind of went down there as a bunch of dudes.
Jake: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We self-deployed. A bunch of yahoos…
So I called a couple of organizations – I called the red cross and a handful of others and said “hey, I’m a recently separated sergeant… time in Iraq and Afghanistan” and kind of walked them through what my experience and skills were.
And said “hey, I’ve got the next seven months. I’ll dump my plans go traveling. I’ll go with your organization for the next seven months free of charge to help you guys operate in that environment.”
They all kind of chuckled and said “hey kid, leave it to the pros.”
Jake: Which listen a decade later – I run a global humanitarian organization – if some idiot called me up to tell me how, I’d tell them the same thing. So I laugh about how much of a fool I was back then.
But nonetheless, not wanting to take no for an answer, I called some of the marines I’d served with. And we got a team together.
Initially, just four guys. And we made plans to fly to the Dominican Republic, and then we would make our way to the border, cross over at a border checkpoint called Timani, and make our way to Port-au-Prince.
And it was just amazing, because there were all these serendipitous moments along the way – on that journey from la to the Dominican to Haiti – that transformed what this could become. So my baggage got lost from Miami to santo Domingo, and I’m sitting there at the at the baggage claim… and if you’ve ever lost had your bag lost, you know the sensation, right? All the bags are getting picked up and all of a sudden that conveyor belt’s just empty. And you just think to yourself “god damn it. They did it again,” right?
And so the only other guy still standing at that conveyor belt was this American wearing blue medical scrubs. And he walks up to me – the guy looks like Elton John – he’s got like highlighted hair; he’s got a hoop earring in one ear.
And he walks up and he says, “hey, you look like you’re about to go to Haiti.” And I was wearing like some fatigues – tactical pants and you know a shirt and I had a go bag on my back.
And I said “yeah, yeah, I am.”
And he goes, “you know my name’s Dr Dave Griswell. I’m an emergency room physician in Washington, dc. I’ve responded with the red cross to a couple of hurricanes, but they’re not answering my calls. I came down here to help. Can I go with you?”
Like “hell, yeah. Yeah, come with me.” Turns out he was an army MP during Vietnam. Okay, great we got a doctor now.
Another one of the marines that was joining the team was sitting on the tarmac of Dulles international airport on one of those buses to take him to the plane. And a guy leans across the aisle and he sees he’s wearing you know marine corps pants. And he goes “hey, semper fi marine.”
And my buddy looks up at him and they introduced themselves. The guy turns out… he’s a former army special forces medic. And a physician assistant in the emergency room.
And he says “hey, I’m going to Haiti. And I’m looking for a team I can trust.” So, okay, Mark hayward joins the team. Army-18 delta.
My buddy from Milwaukee – same thing – he stands up on the airplane and says, “hey, we’re going to Haiti. Who’s a doctor?” Some doctor raises his hand. And it was just remarkable.
So we ended up crossing the border with eight people. Five of them veterans, two doctors and a Jesuit priest, right? So I always say it’s like the start of a bad joke. Like “five marines, two doctors and a priest walk into a bar… what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
And it just came together, man. And it was a miracle that it did, but sometimes that’s all you need.
Mark: What did you do once you crossed the border?
Jake: Yeah, so we ended up liaising with a Jesuit mission down there. And so the Jesuits had a compound that had secure wall, had a fresh water well… and so we were able to use that as our base of operations.
And the thing about the Catholics – particularly the Jesuits – they have these incredible networks in many countries like Haiti. And so you know that turned out to be our intel infrastructure, right? These people were all throughout the city. They knew all the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. They were getting real-time information that was really, really actionable.
And so they served as kind of our intel cell – for lack of a better phrase – and were really helping to direct our efforts.
So what we were doing – we were basically taking these small teams and going into these communities that were just devastated. And we were running these medical triage camps. Setting up and treating these wounded.
And I’m telling you for the first week – I mean this was like a civil war battlefield – people were walking wounded. Crush wounds, amputated limbs – I mean, we’re talking about amputations that hadn’t been treated in six days… like wrapped in t-shirts. Just shocking level of injuries. And gangrene setting in…
And so we were treating these people. And sometimes we’d find ways to evacuate people to a higher-level hospital. But it was unbelievable.
Mark: That’s crazy. Were you actually like pulling people out of the rubble? That type of thing?
Jake: No, we weren’t doing much what we’d call technical rescue. There were teams by then down there that were doing that. You know, you need a lot of heavy equipment – specialized equipment to do it.
When we’d encounter camps that were indicating people who were still trapped under rubble, we’d do our best to try to confirm or deny that by listening for people – voices, noises coming from the rubble…
And then what we would do is try to coordinate for search and rescue teams to come in and actually conduct that rescue. But it’s really hard.
You know, short of trying to claw through those things by hand – by this point, a week after the earthquake like if somebody was reachable by just moving rocks – somebody had already done that. You needed like real equipment – hydraulics to come in and do some of those last rescues.
Mark: So, it was mostly medical triage. How long were you down there?
Jake: You know, we were down there as an organization for about three weeks. And I was down there for probably two of them, and then I tapped out. Came back to the states.
We had other teams that were coming in.
I mean, over the course of those three weeks, this grew from that initial team of eight to probably 55 or 60 folks who were…
Jake: Yeah, it was amazing. Like, I remember one night – middle of the night – somebody’s banging on this compound wall that we were sleeping in. We go answer it. Guys like “hey, we’re looking for Team Rubicon.”
I look him up and down and you know “who are you?”
Guy was like “oh, I’m a neurosurgeon from Portland, Oregon.”
I’m like “what the fuck are you doing here, man?”
He goes “I was reading about you guys online. I brought my two scrub nurses with me. We’re here to help.”
I’m like “well, we’re not doing brain surgery, man.” I’m like, “can you sew?”
He’s like “yeah, I can sew.”
I’m like “all right. Well, you’re on the team.”
So it was things like that for the whole time. It was just unbelievable.
Mark: So at what point did you start calling it “Team Rubicon,” and thinking of it as something that might go beyond just this one rescue attempt?
Jake: Well, we named it “Team Rubicon,” as we were first going down. And, you know, it’s the military, man. It doesn’t count unless you give it a cool name.”
Mark: You got to have a cool name, right.
Jake: Whatever it is. So we named the team going down “Team Rubicon.”
Mark: And Rubicon is a stepping off point, right? Or it’s a line that you cross? What is the actual meaning of Rubicon?
Jake: Yeah, it’s the point of no return. And the origins are from when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river in 49 BC and marched on Rome. So that was his point of no return.
And you know, they say that when he crossed that river, he uttered the phrase “the die is cast,” you know, the dice are out of my hands and whatever happens happens.
And we saw that border checkpoint between the Dominican Republic and Haiti as our Rubicon. We knew we could get there. We weren’t sure if we could get across. But we knew if we got across, we would be irrevocably committed to what we were about to go do.
So, I would say it was a couple days after we got down there that we really sat around and thought to ourselves like “hey, maybe we’re on to something.”
I mean, at the end of the day, Mark – like you’ll get this. Like, all we were doing was using counter-insurgency principles to do humanitarian aid. Small unit leadership, local leader engagement, operational planning, logistics, risk mitigation… all those things that we were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan… ’07, ’08, ’09… were applicable here.
Jake: So we just kind of felt like we were onto something. We came back, we incorporated as a non-profit and set out to build the best disaster response organization in the world.
Mark: That’s tremendous.
Mark: So from there… I remember reading about your teammate… like, at first it seemed like it was going to be just a catch-as-catch-can… you know, you’ll go back and do your MBA or get into the business world and wait for the next disaster to start. And then we’ll deploy to that.
But then something happened to one of your teammates – one of that original crew – tell us about that story if you could. King of change the trajectory of things.
Jake: Yeah, so I probably glossed over that early year by saying we came back set on building the best disaster response organization in the world. Because what happened was, we actually came back and said, “we’re going to be… our drinking team is going to have a disaster response problem,” you know? (laughing)
Mark: (laughing) I love that.
Jake: That was kind of the approach. We almost – I shouldn’t say almost – we really treated it like a hobby for that first year. And the idea was we’d just have a couple hundred guys on the roster doing their own thing. And when bad things happen, we’d put up a bat-signal and we’d respond.
And so that first year we went to chile after a tsunami there… we went to Pakistan, South Sudan, Burma… you know, some gnarly places. But with solid teams that had experience in those types of places.
But again, we didn’t really have a vision for what it would become. And then one of the original members of the team was a marine named clay hunt who had been my sniper partner, a guy I served with on both tours… you know a really amazing, amazing human being…
Who was suffering from post-traumatic stress. He’d been shot on our tour in Iraq – our first tour he was wounded – and his experiences in Afghanistan really troubled him.
And he ended up taking his own life about a year after Haiti – which was about two years after he got out of the marine corps. So I remember like it was yesterday… it was March 31st, 2011. I got a phone call from his dad and as soon as I picked up the phone, I knew he was dead. His dad didn’t have to say anything.
He just said, “we lost him.”
And that was really hard, as you can imagine. And I know in your introduction to the segment you talked about veteran suicide is a problem.
It’s a plague. It’s a stain of our nation’s honoring liberty.
And when I thought about clay and his death, for me it boiled down to so much more than just post-traumatic stress… because I feel like his post-traumatic stress was manageable. I think what clay was lacking was purpose. A community and a sense of who he was.
And anecdotally, I think we believed that Team Rubicon had the potential to fill those voids for him. We just hadn’t yet… we just hadn’t scaled there yet.
Mark: Well he probably was fulfilled on those missions, but they were only few and far between and so when he got back, he would go back into his despair.
Jake: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And so when the dust settled from his from his memorial service, we kind of all stacked hands and just agreed that we would drop everything else we were doing in our life and commit to doing this full-time.
It’s actually kind of a cool story – three weeks after his funeral – I think exactly three weeks after his funeral – Tuscaloosa, Alabama got hit with a tornado. And there was a horrific tornado – 50 people died, I think.
And we had never responded to a disaster domestically. But we saw that tornado and we were anxious, we were angry, we were upset. We were grieving still…
And we we’d only ever thought of our mission as medical in nature. And there was no room for us to be doing a medical mission in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But we said “screw it. We’re gonna go anyway. We’ll figure something out.”
We went down there, and we helped. We brought chains saws and we cleared roads. Cleared people’s properties and stuff like that.
But the first night we were down there we’re sitting around a campfire out in the woods – rural Alabama. Sleeping at a hunting cabin and sitting around a campfire drinking beers – telling stories about how awesome we used to be, just like any group of veterans, right? Embellishing our stories.
And we get a phone call. And it was weird, because there was such limited service out in the woods and the guy picks up the phone, and the person on the other end tells him something I can’t hear. But I can see the guy’s face just change. And he hangs up the phone and he hushes everybody around the campfire.
And I swear to god, I can remember it like it was yesterday… like, you could hear the fire crackling. And he just said, “we just killed Osama bin Laden.”
And it kind of like sunk in for a moment and it was one of the most powerful moments of my life. Because one, I was sitting around this campfire with 25 people, three weeks removed from my best friend’s funeral. And we’d just gotten the guy who was responsible for us having gone to war. And it just was this amazing moment of I guess closure.
Having experienced it in this moment where we were serving in that capacity, was just remarkable.
Mark: That is kind of cool. You know, one thing that I really didn’t get a chance to ask you earlier but there was something about you when Haiti kind of went down, right? Most people were just watching on tv and go about their business of getting into business school or finding a job or you know going to work the next day.
But you were different. Like, what do you think that was? Like what spoke to you then? Where did that come from?
The part of you that just had to go and help this country that you knew nothing about. And you had no connection to Haiti at that point in time, I don’t think.
Jake: I mean, I think… I’ve always been a little impulsive. (laughing) Just a little.
And I’ve always had… service has always been important to me. I was raised that way… I did service activities when I was in high school.
But you know those are all like the nice things to say. I think that I’d be lying to you if I didn’t also say that I had an itch that I felt like I still needed to scratch.
Mark: Bored, you mean? Or like you you’re just weren’t done operationally?
Jake: Yeah, I think I was still grappling with the idea that I’d gotten out of the marine corps. You know, the idea that I would never serve a mission again. A high-stakes mission.
I think it was the right decision. I think at the moment, I still felt like it was the right decision, even though I was only three months removed from it. But it doesn’t mean you have to like the decisions, just because they’re the right ones, right?
So I think I just had this itch I wanted to scratch.
Mark: I think that’s amazing, because first of all, the skill set and that warrior ambition right to go serve and to do so in in a gritty, dangerous kind of scenario. At great risk to your own life.
But also simultaneously not want to be in a conflict that is murky and where the moral decisions are devastating, right? If you make the wrong call and maybe there’s a point where you kind of forget why we’re even there. You know what I mean?
I mean 18 years or 11 years after 9/11, you can start to wonder “what the hell are we still doing in Afghanistan,” right? So to be able to create an opportunity for veterans to serve in a meaningful way, to recover from a crisis as opposed to go play smack-a-mole for the next bad guy that hates America. That’s profound, for the warrior class. And the protectors.
So you were tapping into that and then you created that for others. Team Rubicon – I think I read in the intro – was it initially going to be…?
No, actually, initially you had medical doctors and military vets. So it wasn’t all for military vets. But that became a big part of it, right? That it was to provide vets this kind of new opportunity to serve.
Jake: Yeah, that’s always been an element of what we do. And I think that there was a period in time early in our evolution when we were trying to figure out were we a disaster response organization leveraging vets? Or were we a veterans organization leveraging disasters?
Mark: (laughing) Interesting.
Jake: It’s a distinction that actually does have a difference. And I think that there was a there was a period of time where we thought that we existed to serve veterans. And I don’t think that’s the case… well, I know that’s not the case now. I mean, I think we’ve we finally have achieved clarity of who we are. And why we exist.
We exist to respond to disasters. We exist to help people on their worst day following these crises.
Veterans are simply the agent of our mission, right? And we know that there’s an intended unintended consequence… that is that restoration of purpose for them.
But that’s not the mission itself. That’s a positive outcome of the mission that we execute.
I think there’s too many organizations out there that treat veterans like charity cases. And we didn’t do that. We want to challenge them to a better life.
Mark: 100% agree. They’re tripping over each other these days. It’s one of the reasons – like, we struggle to raise money. Because there’s a lot of chop and noise out there.
All for a good cause, but it’s kind of a new thing, right?
So I want to just ask a few more questions and I’ll let you go, cause I know you got things to do, places to go.
With Rubicon you’ve done over 700 missions. What percentage of the operators – you call them “gray shirts,” are multiple deployments a year, right? Or what’s the average number of deployments that the gray shirt operator will take?
Jake: That’s a good question. I don’t know the number off the top of my head, but we do have our super-volunteers who effectively treat this like a full-time job. I mean, they’re running from disaster to disaster to the extent that sometimes we have to turn them away, and say like “you actually gotta go change your socks, man.” Like “you gotta go take a knee for a little bit.”
And it’s really not all that different from I imagine the teams, right? You see guys who are just chasing deployments and it’s at the detriment of their family and their personal lives.
Like, that’s not good, right? You’re running from something. You got to figure that out.
But I’d say that on any given mission probably 50% of the people that are there, it’s the first time they’ve ever come out. And that’s good. It’s a good healthy turnover.
I’d say a quarter of people on that mission probably were on a mission a year prior. And I’d say probably another quarter of them – it’s probably their third, or fourth, or fifth that year.
Jake: Which is good, because they provide a lot of continuity and that tribal knowledge that’s really critical to making the operation tick.
Mark: And so you still… you have a whole leadership structure… you mentioned it’s kind of like counterinsurgency.
So you go set up a leadership structure – and the experienced peeps run the jock and they assign duties to the squad leaders. And all that kind of stuff?
Jake: Yeah, absolutely so we run everything on what’s called the incident command system – which is a framework that the federal government has designed and implemented across emergency management.
And yeah, I mean, you’d walk into a Team Rubicon mission and you’d feel like you’re at a jock. You know… you’ve got your best chops. And you got s1, s2, s3, s4… you know… all that stuff. Admin.
Then we’ve got – instead of squads – in the disaster space they’re called “strike teams.” And you align across task forces, strike teams…
And it’s amazing because veterans walk in and they just kind of feel at home.
Mark: Right. That’s kind of cool.
You mentioned before we started this podcast that you’re starting kind of an offshoot under the Rubicon umbrella that will do more international assistance. Tell us a little bit more about that. Is that for war-torn regions where the crisis is a little bit higher, and you want to bring some special op skills to it?
Jake: Yeah, yeah. So we have maintained an international mission set throughout our time in responding to earthquakes and typhoons and everything in between. But there are opportunities that we see frequently that that could use individuals familiar with an asymmetric environment. Small teams that can have outsized impact.
Whether that’s by helping to re-establish a runway, or maybe organizing local indigenous support to set up a hasty last-mile logistics infrastructure. It’s just thinking outside the box to solve really critical problems in a resource strict environment.
Jake: Sound familiar?
Mark: Yes it really, really does. But not necessarily in a conflicted area where there might be bad guys, you know…
Jake: But often… often. The vast majority of humanitarian need in the world are in conflict zones of some kind. Whether that is refugee crises in the middle east, or the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar – conflict does drive the vast majority of humanitarian need.
Look at the famine in Yemen right now. You have an entire generation of children who are going to grow up malnourished, if they even survive – because of the you know the Houthi fight in Yemen – which is really as we all know, just a proxy war for other players in the in this space. Which is tragic.
So how do you get the right people who can operate in that environment having outsized impact relative to the inputs? Well you recruit out of the SOF community. And it’s got to be people who have the right mindset. The types of people who are comfortable going back into that environment and doing it without a gun. And doing it not for your country, but for humanity. And it’s just as noble.
Mark: No doubt. I’m looking forward to seeing that develop and maybe participating.
Jake: Would love to have you.
Mark: I want to get my feet on the ground and my hands involved in service myself. You know, get away from the microphone blither-blather.
So, your book’s coming out “Once a Warrior,” I love that title. Is there like a big overarching message in the book that you could tell the listeners that may inspire them to go pick it up?
Jake: Yeah, I think one of the one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book and release it at the time it’s being released – which is the week after the election – is that you know I think that this country is looking for inspiration right now.
Mark: No doubt. By the way, we’re recording this on election day.
Jake: Yeah, so we have no idea how this plays out.
Mark: (laughing) Who knows what’s going to be happening in the next few months?
Jake: Fast-forward and we’re going to be listening in who knows what frame of mind. But I think so many Americans are looking for inspiration and it’s hard to come by these days. Just because of the political environment, and the way we’re speaking to each other in communities.
And every time I go out on a team with a mission, I get to meet our volunteers. I see people from all walks of life, all political stripes, every socio-economic background, every ethnicity – coming together in the pursuit of a common mission. And that’s to help someone.
It’s not that much different from an infantry platoon. And I think to myself if Americans treated one another every day like they do after a disaster, we’d actually live in the America that we want to live in.
Mark: That’s right.
Jake: Why does it take a freaking disaster to bring us together like that? And I just think that the men and women of Team Rubicon can serve as an inspiration to Americans at a time when they need it. And remind us that if we choose – the best days of our country are still ahead of us and they’re not behind us. But we have to choose it.
Mark: Right. Well said. I agree with that.
And so how do people choose to learn more about Team Rubicon?
Jake: Well, we’re pretty easy to find. We’re all over the interwebs – you can follow us on social media. We’re on all the big platforms. Go to teamrubiconusa.org if you’re a veteran or a first responder you’re listening we’d love to have you join the team. Sign up. Serve your community.
If you’re thinking about towards the end of the year making a contribution to a charitable cause you know we promise to be more transparent and more accountable with your contribution than anybody.
Of course, the courage foundation is doing good work as well. I’ll donate to anybody that’s giving 22 million burpees for the world. So, you can count on some support from me on that one.
Mark: (laughing) I appreciate that.
And the book will be available on amazon and all the places books are sold, obviously.
Jake: Yeah, book’s available anywhere books are sold. And look forward to hearing what your readers think of it.
Mark: Yeah. Me too. I’m looking forward to reading it myself. And I’m looking forward to deploying.
Mark: You know, I gotta say one last thing. For anyone who’s listening who’s like intrigued – like I was. I was scanning and saying, “what organization could I get behind where I could go, and you know do the things that Jake has been talking about?”
And I had heard about Rubicon, but then I started to research it more. And I was like “wow, this is pretty spot-on.” And their head and the heart is in the right place.
And the process is actually fairly simple. I mean literally. There’s a little bit of training, you got to do a background check. Then there’s the FEMA training, which I haven’t done yet.
Jake: Well we’re actually about to waive that. We’re redefining our deployment protocol, so you might be all right.
Mark: (laughing) There you go. Then I’m gonna waive that. I’m sure that will put me to sleep, right away.
And then it’s just about showing up and being willing to work. And then learning the ropes from there, right?
Jake: Yeah, exactly.
Mark: That’s cool, very cool. And the other thing is I didn’t want to go in as a commander and say, “oh yeah.” You got those kind of like officer leadership skills, so we’ll put you over here on this computer in the corner.
I was like, “no, I want to run a chainsaw or I want to…” you know, I went to wilderness first responder course over the last two weeks to just have some basic refresh my basic wilderness first aid and search and rescue skills…
Jake: That’s actually one of the amazing things about tr. So we have a saying – there’s no rank in Rubicon. And we’ve literally had one-star general show up and day three realizes that they’re not just like an old retired…
Mark: The master sergeant or something…
Jake: Yeah, a master sergeant from you know the ‘80s. And at the same time we might have a guy who got out as a lance corporal – who’s in charge of the entire operation, and nobody bats an eye. Because it’s just about who knows how to do this job in this moment. And everybody else is going to fall in line.
And likewise we’ve got people that might have spent 15 years as a logistician in the navy, who gets out and says “man, you throw me in logistics, I’m gone. I never want to do it again.”
And so it’s a cool opportunity.
Mark: That’s cool. That’s why I wanted to get some fundamental medical certifications. Because if you’re in a crisis and you can’t provide first response, then it doesn’t seem like…
It seems limited, right? And so I figured I at least want to be able to provide first-aid. Or man a first aid station and be able to triage and whatnot.
So I’m excited to learn more. Jake thanks so much for your time today. Really appreciate you. Thanks for your service. Thanks for what you’re doing with Team Rubicon.
Jake: Thank you for bringing me on.
Mark: Yeah, you’re welcome. Good luck with the book and to all vets out there, go check out Team Rubicon if you want to find some service again.
And if you’re inspired by Jake’s story, go to teamrubiconusa.org and donate. And also buy Jake’s book. It’s going to be a really interesting and valuable read.
So thanks again, Jake. Hooyah.
Jake: Thanks, Mark.
Mark: All right. Take care. All right folks. That’s it for me. Again, check out teamrubiconusa.org. Check out Jake’s new book “Once a Warrior.” Check Jake out on Instagram and Twitter and all that just by typing his name in or Team Rubicon.
Thanks for your support. That’s it for me. This is Mark Divine. This is Unbeatable Mind. And stay focused and keep your head down.
Take care. Divine out.