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.

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