In the Arena

Memorial Day in Oklahoma City

I spent Memorial Day weekend with Team Rubicon, the great veterans disaster relief organization. We fought the battle of SW 7th Street in Moore, Oklahoma.

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Eric Thayer for Time

Blue tarps had to be nailed over shattered roofs to secure homes in Moore, Okla.

I spent Memorial Day weekend with Team Rubicon, the great veterans disaster relief organization. We fought the battle of SW 7th Street in Moore, Oklahoma.

We deployed in the post-apocalyptic shadow of the local Imax. The landscape was the sort of thing you’d normally see inside the theater—total, sometimes incomprehensible post-tornado devastation. There were car doors in trees, two-by-fours javelined into the sides of houses, a hospital crushed, strip mall banality interrupted, obliterated by the awesome power of the storm, and then resumed a quarter-mile down the road. The Martians had attacked here. Godzilla had stomped the suburbs of Oklahoma City. I half-expected the occupying army of aliens to come marching, or floating, down I-35.

Instead, the occupying army consisted of relief workers, local first-responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country—funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals—and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon. They looked tough, mega-tatted, in camouflage pants, gray t-shirts and white hard-hats. They moved with purpose and spirit, equipped by Home Depot—which has done brilliant work locating and funding the very best veterans service groups—with an impressive array of chain saws, power tools, wheelbarrows, tarps and wood.

(PHOTOS: Team Rubicon Helps Recovery Efforts After Oklahoma Tornado)

The Rubicon volunteers came from all over the country, but most, in this first phase of the deployment, were from the midwest. This was a smaller operation than their last major mission, Hurricane Sandy, when 350 Team Rubicon members had organized 10,000 civilian volunteers.

The civilian volunteers in this case were a handful of locals, a cadre of first responders—cops from Ipswich, Mass; firefighters, who seem particularly attracted to the Rubicon style—a chaplain from Florida and me. My team leader, Chad, immediately gave me a nickname—Grampa (ouch)—and a wheelbarrow. We worked our way down SW7th street, clearing debris and piling it on the streetfront (hence my wheelbarrow), chainsawing trees, covering broken windows with boards, nailing tarps to shattered rooftops. (Another group of Rubicon volunteers went high-tech, going door to door with smartphones equipped with Palantir software that enabled them to report on the condition of each house and submit emergency work orders from the owners. They did more than 1000 of these reports in 3 days; the information was relayed to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.)

Moore Tornado timephotographers

ERIC THAYER / Eric Thayer for Time

TIME columnist Joe Klein helps members of the veterans group Team Rubicon work on storm damaged homes in Moore, Okla., on May 26, 2013

This was the first disaster relief deployment for about 40% of the Team Rubicon volunteers, by my very unofficial count—and it was a matter of joy and relief for them.  These were enlisted men and women. Many of them had been feeling lost and alone back home. More than a few were suffering from post-traumatic stress; all of them missed the comraderie of the service—a comraderie that, sadly, dangerously, does not exist in civilian America. “I feel blessed to have a mission again,” Isaiah Johnson of Oklahoma City, an Army veteran told me. “This feels like home. I’m out here with my people.”

(PHOTOS: Tornado Flattens Suburb Outside Oklahoma City, Kills Dozens)

Isaiah and his “very extremely close” friend Megan McKee, a Navy Rescue Swimmer, were part of a work team headed by  Master Sergeant (Ret.) Michael Washington, a 50-year-old Seattle firefighter—known as “Top” to his troops, of course—who lost his son in Iraq. Top was one of those guys you just follow. He radiated a natural authority, taking the lead on the toughest jobs while puffing on a very complicated-looking pipe. At the end of our Saturday labor, Top called his work team together and told them, “This was a great team. We really learned how to do this work today. We may not work together tomorrow, but you are all leaders now. You can do this.”

These are magic words for most Team Rubicon members. Most have not heard that sort of praise, or encouragement, from anyone since they came home. The members of Top’s team nodded at each other, silently, dirty, sweaty and satisfied. As Top later told me, it was good for him too, like actually serving with his son’s comrades (indeed, during Hurricane Sandy, he actually found himself working with kids who had served with his son in Iraq). “I’m in this for good,” Top told me. “I’m anywhere they want me.”

At night, back in the Team Rubicon barracks—a not-so-nearby high school gymnasium–the volunteers would often for an evening debrief. Some would talk about the day’s work; others would talk about how they’d been feeling alone, stressed, angry, passive back home…and how being part of a unit once again, part of something larger than themselves really mattered.

(MORE: Memorial Day: A Whole New Meaning)

On Sunday night, as we sat in the dark bleachers of the high school’s softball field, a warm, soft breeze blowing in from the Gulf,  an incredibly courageous Army Staff Sergeant named Chris Dominski  remembered not just the men who had died under his command in Baghdad in 2004, but also the precise date and circumstances of their deaths, the names of the wives and children they’d left behind. He spoke softly. The effect was mesmerizing. Chris said he’d had a hard time with survivor guilt after he came home. He said he’d tried to commit suicide twice. “I guess I wasn’t too good at it, but what I wanted to say here is that you—Team Rubicon—you saved my life.”

On Monday, there was a Memorial Day service at the Team Rubicon Forward Operation Base in the parking lot of the Home Depot on SW 19th Street. Top led the service. He read the Gettysburg Address in a taut, sharp military manner, in a way that brought power and emotional resonance to the words.

Regular readers know that normally I post a poem, an ode to service and sacrifice, on Memorial Day. But Lincoln’s words are, I think, better than any poem. And as you read them, think of Master Sergeant Mike Washington chanting them, with his son in mind:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

After that, Top recited the names of dead comrades, ending with that of his son. The flag was raised, in honor of Team Rubicon member Clay Hunt, and Taps was sung.

And then we all went back to work.  The march down SW 7th Street continued—and, this time, the men and women of Team Rubicon were winning their battle, house to house.

PHOTOSHonoring the Fallen: One Photographer’s Witness to 490 Dignified Transfers

jimbales 2 Like

"funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals"

Actually, its:
"Funny how you don't see Joe Klien admitting his errors and apologizing for them"


Jim Bales 

RossBlocher 4 Like

It was an unfortunate smirch on this article for Joe Klein to make a jab at Secular Humanists without doing his research, and I think this justifies an update to the article and an apology/retraction. In addition to the various efforts listed below, I and other atheists/humanists who are contributors to Foundation Beyond Belief "raised more than $45,000 for our two beneficiaries, Operation USA and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma".

MarkBender 2 Like

Funny how Joe Klein took the time and intentionally went out of his way to bash secular humanists without one iota of supporting, factual information.  What an arrogant, self-aggrandizing foolish thing to assert such utter lies.  What is your agenda, Mr. Klein?  If you are worth anything as a columnist, I would expect you would research your false assertions and recant this portion of the article with a corrective apology.

MarkBender 2 Like

This is particularly offensive as a recent retiree after 22 years of active duty and an atheist with alliances in secular humanism.  As others have duly noted, atheists, non-theists, non-believers, humanists and the like have contributed quite tangibly to these efforts but do not always feel the need to egotistically parade their non-religious affiliations for your entertainment.  It is agonizing to see such a myopic perspective come from a Time columnist.  A perspective that reflects so poorly on the company, its editors and staff as well.  

Funny how Joe Klein neglected to further assert the apparent absence of other minority organizations (LGBT relief groups, Islamic Relief USA, Jewish relief orgs, Asian relief groups, etc)  -- .  Where's your condescension now, Mr. Klein?

GogglesDoNada 5 Like

"funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals"

Some members of Team Rubicon -- the group you were with -- are secular humanists. 

Joe Klein, and his Time editor(s), are unlearned children. 

RichardPirkle 2 Like

"funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals"

Mr. Klein, You are a bigot. Enjoy the rest of your fantasy life! I will not read or watch you on T.V. as I now know you are truly an idiot, not a professional writer or (Laughable) analyst...


Wendy91602 4 Like

I don't understand the writer singling out secular humanists as uncharitable or uninvolved. I am an atheist - but I don't mind being called a secular humanist; there is an overlap. When CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer asked a tornado survivor Rebecca Vitsmun if she thanked god for her survival, she said, "Actually, I'm an atheist..." and it resonated with a lot of us. I have given to at least two charities that raised money for the Oklahoma tornado survivors. One was organized by comedian Doug Stanhope and raised over $100,000 for the courageous woman of honest candor. Here are links to two of the charities.


Skepticism, closely aligned with secular humanism, is the intersection of science education and consumer protection. Although not all skeptics are atheists, and not all atheists are skeptics, dismissing secular humanists as incapable of working for the good of society was seriously insulting and demeaning. The author should issue a public apology. The separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution and for good reasons. The founding fathers were all too familiar with the Spanish Inquisition and the excesses of religion that evidently, author Klein has forgotten.

JoshNankivel 6 Like

From Hemit Mehta:

"A simple Google search would’ve turned up a number of ways atheists helped in the wake of the Oklahoma tornadoes. But since Klein was too lazy to do it, I’ll do it for him:

More than 4,300 people donated more than $120,000 for the family of Rebecca Vitsmun (she promised to donate to charity whatever money she doesn’t need).

Foundation Beyond Belief raised over $45,000 for Operation USA and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

Atheists Giving Aid raised over $18,000 that will be given to local relief groups in Moore, Oklahoma and directly to families that need help.

Members of the FreeOK atheist group helped families who needed wreckage removed from their property"

- See more at:

imominous 5 Like

Weird. So did you go from group to group, inquiring as to the spiritual selections of the volunteers?

If so, why would you waste any time on something that superficial? If not, why even mention something as fact that you don't even know is true? Chances are, there were more secular humanists and atheists and agnostics and Nones than you can fathom.

Helping people is a social imperative, Joey. It doesn't take fear of a big bad sky daddy to make people want to volunteer time and energy improving the lives of others.

You've become quite the arrogant twit in your old age, haven't you.

J4son 5 Like

Why in the world would you deem it remotely worthwhile to put out slander against secular groups?

You are one dumb reporter, mate. No quicker way to brew up a s***storm than randomly charge entire active bodies of people of being inactive.

BrendanBeckett 5 Like

Nice random lie about secular humanist groups, of which there were multiple on the scene helping. Why can't we just work together and be thankful for everyone helping instead of making it a contest about who is more charitable?

BenjaminHulme 5 Like

"funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals"

I concur to all the below comments and would like to point out that you've really brought down my perception of the reputation of TIME with this pathetic, unsubstantiated snide claim. A quick mere online search would reveal all the good secular groups HAVE in fact done in the face of this tragedy. You are simply bringing your outdated, unsympathetic view that secular people are somehow less kind or less moral than our religious counterparts! I feel truly sorry for TIME for having such a petty writer on its' team. Shame on you Mr Klein.

LaurenceAvyelNadeli 3 Like

"funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals"

 I can't ignore that line. I cannot believe this kind of drivel made it through. You attempt to write this heartwarming piece about people coming together to help each other and SCREW IT ALL UP by inserting the most blatantly devisive line you could think of RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE! You don't notice the secular humanists because your eyes are shut tight with your ears plugged by your fingers! We don't have to band into groups and advertise our good deeds with big banners above us. We are part of groups like the Red Cross and other major and minor relief groups. We donate from our private homes to relief funds. We donate swimming pools of blood every year. We volunteer in droves because it is the right thing to do. We do right because it is right. We don't need to show up in vans with a big church logo on the side. How DARE you write such hateful words in the name of your religion! How DARE you use this tragedy as your pulpit of vitriol! Someone needs to read Matthew 6. In fact, read the ENTIRE THING! You and those who defend your words are HYPOCRITES of the worst kind. People like YOU are the reason this world can be so horrible. SHAME ON YOU AND TIME.

TLavonLawrence 9 Like

"funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals"

You were looking like a half-way decent human being right up until that point.  Now you look like a petty, self-absorbed grandstander beating his own chest while shouting something ridiculously untrue.

Bad form.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." ---Matthew 6:1-4

HelenEschenbach 6 Like

I just read this line in my print edition of Time: " --funny how you don't see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals--"

I was so angry I wanted to spit!  You, Mr. Klein go to ONE volunteer spot and this is what you come up with?  I am an atheist.  I have given my 64 years of life to service!  Starting as a US Army nurse in Vietnam and continuing on with teaching first responder courses--free--volunteering at food banks and Gregory Houses for AIDS patients when it wasn't "cool" to work with   LGBT people-free--rewriting the book on trauma medicine for the five branches of service--setting up nurse practitioner clinics for little to nothing while Wall Street took my savings--free.

I stopped reading Time and threw it away.  I will never read you again.  And Mr. Klein when you are on MSNBC?  I will turn TV off.

okiestache 6 Like

funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals

Really? You weren't paying attention then, you arrogant twit.

HelenEschenbach 6 Like

@okiestache Well said!  I too was astonished to see such drivel from a Times columnist.   Just because we don't announce our life philosophy on a t-shirt or under a banner and we don't shove our ideas down someone else's throat doesn't mean we don't work very hard for others.

I give freely as an atheist.  And I don't judge.  But Mr. Klein?  You were WAY out of order!

JoshuaPutnam 9 Like

I in no way want to take away from the service of Team Rubicon and would like to thank Mr. Klein for his help with the relief efforts. However, his snide comment about secular humanists can not be ignored. I am an atheist, and if he'd bothered to ask me or many of my fellow atheists working in Moore he would have realized there were many of us there. He would have had to ask though, because most of us don't feel the need to advertise who we are or prosthelyze to those we are helping. In fact he might have been confused by me since I hooked up with a team from Lifechurch to deliver supplies to Newcastle. They had supplies that needed to be delivered and I had a truck. I will admit that I wasn't working on Memorial Day, because I decided to take a day off from volunteering to join some of my former brothers in arms visiting the grave of one of our brothers who didn't make it home.


Mr Klein,was an honor to meet you in Moore Oklahoma.the fact that you were willing to dig in alongside us and help the residents of Oklahoma deserves a marine corps ooooooh rahhhh...well done sir


This gave me chills, Mr. Klein. Thank you for coming out and getting your hands dirty. I appreciate that you so artfully put into words all the emotions I was feeling over the week.


THANK YOU Mr. Klein!  Hopefully our paths will cross again.  Thanks Again

Chris Dominski

SSG US Army Retired

TVHog 3 Like

Why in the world can we not find a way to make this a permanent civilian service?  It certainly seems that it would give a lot of ex-military folks a way to continue their service and to find that camaraderie they lost.  More importantly, it would help assure an orderly and effective way to deal with the ongoing stream of natural and man-made disasters occurring these days.

Maybe it could be a part of FEMA...


We should honor these men and women, whatever American adventure they gave their lives for, including the most wrongheaded ones like Vietnam. Many of the unappreciated walking wounded from the Vietnam War are (or were) friends of mine. This song is about one of them: