How Team Rubicon Australia Is Changing the Veteran Narrative
At 6am this morning, ANZAC Day 2020, in streets all around Australia, hundreds of thousands of Australians joined together in a powerful show of solidarity. As the sun peeked over the horizon, the country stood in both uniforms and pajamas, to let Australia’s veterans know that their service and sacrifice will never be forgotten.
ANZAC Day is a powerful reminder of the need to support Australian veterans. A large part of this, however, is changing the national narrative around what it means to be a veteran.
According to Geoff Evans, CEO and Co-founder of Team Rubicon Australia (TRA), the term ‘veteran’ is often associated with an old man or someone who’s returned from a tour of East Timor or Afghanistan. It’s not often that one thinks of a veteran as a young female naval warfare officer who’s running 50 veterans and up to 150 other volunteers on the ground in south-east NSW to deliver disaster relief to people who have lost everything.
Team Rubicon Australia is an international disaster response nonprofit that unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly provide relief to communities in need. Geoff was in the Army for 20 years and when medically discharged due to injury in 2010, he experienced an acute loss of purpose and identity. It is those things, according to Geoff, that TRA gives back to its volunteers, 85% of whom are veterans.
The TRA Journey
Since it was founded in 2017, TRA has conducted 22 disaster relief missions both in Australia and overseas. During the bushfires, it was operating in East Gippsland, south-east NSW, the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island, as well as conducting a drought-relief mission across NSW.
TRA’s virtue is that it achieves two mutually supporting objectives. The veterans who volunteer benefit from a huge boost in self-esteem and purpose from doing solid, meaningful work, and in many cases getting skilled up for paid civilian employment. They communities they help also benefit enormously, not least because the volunteers are so effective down to their military background.
Why veterans make good first responders
“Veterans have amazing skills and experience and when they leave the military these skills are not utilised,” said Geoff.
“[In establishing TRA], we saw an opportunity to put those skills and experience to work. In Australia, the emergency services and Army do a fantastic job, but once they withdraw there’s no one there in the recovery space. Now, when those organisations withdraw, they are handing over to us.
Veterans are ideally suited to working in the disaster relief environment because of their skills and experience. If you can operate in a war zone you can operate in a disaster zone. We’re not concerned about your gender or what you did before you joined; it’s what you can contribute now. If you’ve got the skills, the ability and the time, we’ve got the opportunity.”
Geoff says the value veterans bring include highly developed leadership skills, initiative, resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and an inherent attitude of service above self.
‘They’re just such a remarkable workforce,’ he says. ‘It really upsets me that when industry and business think about hiring a veteran, they think they’re taking on a problem. It’s the opposite.’
Services TRA offers
When TRA arrives in a community, often one that is getting no assistance from anyone else, it provides such services as sifting through the ashes of destroyed houses looking for personal mementos, clearing fallen trees, cleaning up debris, fencing repairs, welfare assistance and staging community events.
They often accompany survivors when they return to what’s left of their house for the first time — obviously, an intensely distressing time for many people.
‘They are usually completely overwhelmed,’ says Geoff. ‘We work with them through the day, recovering their possessions, clearing off the block and usually, by the end of the day, they’re a different person. What we have actually done, is help them take the first step in their recovery. Once they have taken that first momentous step, they can take another, and another.’
TRA recognises that apart from familiarising volunteers with its procedures there’s not much they need to teach former military personnel.
‘We don’t waste time and money training people when the Australian Government has already spent millions of dollars training them,’ says Geoff.
Preparing its volunteers for paid employment and encouraging them to pursue it has made TRA a victim of its own success. One of the biggest problems TRA has is people leaving the organisation, not because they want to leave, but because they’ve been built up enough that they’re able to transition to paid employment.
The Government has recognised this and has provided $15 million to TRA, Soldier On and the RSL to roll out employment-related programs through a one-off grants package.
TRA’s immediate plans are to recruit new volunteers and expand the number of disaster relief teams around Australia. They are also working with businessman Andrew Forrest’s charity the Minderoo Foundation to become part of a national framework for better managing what are known as ‘spontaneous volunteers’ (volunteers who arrive unsolicited at disaster sites to help), in cooperation with the corporate sector.
To learn more about TRA, visit the Team Rubicon Australia website: https://teamrubiconaus.org/
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