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A celebration of the extraordinary courage, dedication, and sacrifice of this generation of American veterans on the battlefield and their equally valuable contributions on the home front.
Because so few of us now serve in the military, our men and women in uniform have become strangers to us. We stand up at athletic events to honor them, but we hardly know their true measure. Here, Starbucks CEO and longtime veterans’ advocate Howard Schultz and National Book Award finalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post offer an enlightening, inspiring corrective.
The authors honor acts of uncommon valor in Iraq and Afghanistan, including an Army sergeant who repeatedly runs through a storm of gunfire to save the lives of his wounded comrades; two Marines who sacrifice their lives to halt an oncoming truck bomb and protect thirty-three of their brothers in arms; a sixty-year-old doctor who joins the Navy to honor his fallen son.
We also see how veterans make vital contributions once they return home, drawing on their leadership skills and commitment to service: former soldiers who aid residents in rebuilding after natural disasters; a former infantry officer who trades in a Pentagon job to teach in an inner-city neighborhood; a retired general leading efforts to improve treatments for brain-injured troops; the spouse of a severely injured soldier assisting families in similar positions.
These powerful, unforgettable stories demonstrate just how indebted we are to those who protect us and what they have to offer our nation when their military service is done.
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Howard Schultz, left, is chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Starbucks, where he has been recognized for his leadership, business ethics, and efforts to strengthen communities. He and his wife, Sheri, have pledged extensive support to help veterans make successful transitions to civilian life through the Schultz Family Foundation’s Onward Veterans initiative. Schultz is the best-selling author of Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul and Pour Your Heart Into It.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post, where he has worked since 1994. He has been the newspaper’s bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo, and Southeast Asia, and he has been covering Afghanistan off and on for a decade. Chandrasekaran is the author of Little America and Imperial Life in the Emerald City, which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2007 by The New York Times.
On April 27, 2014, Jeff Hunter had spent his entire workday at Fred’s Super Dollar, in Vilonia, Arkansas, racked by apprehension. The weather forecast called for severe springtime storms, and there was nothing he disliked more than thunder and lightning. Two weeks earlier, the twenty-two-year-old had posted a video clip on the Internet about his weather fears, which had plagued him since he was a toddler. “I hate all the noise,” he said. “I hate the flashes of light.”
By the time his shift at Fred’s ended late that afternoon, his pulse had returned to normal. There wasn’t a storm cloud in the sky. Instead of heading to his apartment, he drove to his father’s house to pick up a few boxes of childhood possessions that he had promised to clear out of the attic. After he loaded them in his car, his stepmother, Vicki, invited him to stay for a lasagna dinner. As soon as they had finished, Jeff’s mobile phone buzzed with a text alert: “The National Weather Service has issued a TORNADO WARNING for Faulkner County.” They were sitting in Faulkner County.
He and his father, Tim, looked outside and saw that the sky had turned ominous. On the television, a red-splotched radar map filled the screen. Jeff and his family didn’t need the weatherman to tell them to get to safety—it sounded as if a jet were taking off on their lawn. The three of them rushed into an interior bathroom. Jeff and Vicki cowered inside the tub. Tim knelt next to them. While his dad and stepmom prayed, Jeff pulled out his phone and posted a message on Facebook: “Multi vortex tornado!!!!! Get to safety!!!”
Then he tapped out a text message. “Mama I’m so scared.”
“I love you Jeff,” his mother wrote back from her home twenty miles away. “You will make it.”
“It’s heading right for me.”
Before she could respond, he sent another text.
“I love you mama . . .”
Seconds later, a quarter-mile-wide EF4 tornado touched down on Clover Ridge Drive, the street where Jeff’s father lived, ripping the house apart and tearing into the bathroom. It sucked Jeff from the tub and into a ferocious funnel cloud. Neighbors found Jeff’s body on the street later that evening, buried under fragments of the house and the family’s possessions. Both Tim and Vicki were seriously injured, but they survived. “I have no idea how,” Tim said.
As he recovered in a local hospital and grieved for Jeff, Tim worried about his house. His brother, Anthony Hunter, broke the news that it was beyond repair. Every home on Tim’s side of Clover Ridge Drive had been destroyed by the tornado. Roofs were gone and windows shattered. Two-by-fours had been snapped in half as if they were matchsticks. Family photographs and heirlooms were scattered everywhere. Residents, friends, and family would have to sort through the rubble to recover whatever could be salvaged. Then the owners would have to call a demolition crew. Everything—the bricks, the floor tiles, the drywall, the appliances, the waterlogged furniture—would have to be hauled away.
Tim was certain the demolition firms would be charging top dollar, as they always did after big storms, and he feared the cost would deplete the insurance funds he would need to rebuild his house. He knew of others in Vilonia who had used so much of their insurance payouts to clear their lots after a tornado three years earlier that they were unable to afford new homes.
Anthony returned to the house the next day, driving through a tableau of postapocalyptic devastation. National Guard troops offered to help look for family keepsakes, but they couldn’t dis- mantle the structure. As Anthony prepared to search for a wrecking crew to hire, two men pulled up in a black Ford pickup truck. Clad in matching gray T-shirts identifying them as members of Team Rubicon, they walked around the property, their boots crunching shards of glass. One took notes on a clipboard, while the other tapped on a tablet computer and took a few photographs.
They offered to demolish what remained of the house and haul the debris to the curb so it could be collected by municipal workers, for free.
“Who are you guys?” Anthony asked.
“We’re veterans,” one said. “We’re here to help.”
The morning after the tornado, Team Rubicon began mobilizing as an Army battalion might. Two scouts arrived within a day, while first responders were still searching for victims and National Guard forces were just reaching the area. The Rubicon reconnaissance team quickly determined that local authorities were capable of handling the immediate rescue effort, but the community would need assistance with everything else: fastening plastic tarpaulins over damaged roofs, chopping up fallen trees, and hauling away the detritus of the storm. Scores of families like the Hunters required several sets of hands but lacked the money to hire private cleanup crews.
Then came the advance party. Over the following three days, several more Rubicon staffers and volunteer organizers descended on the area to pitch camp, unpack computers and chain saws, coordinate the arrival of rank-and-file volunteers, and introduce them- selves to local officials. Meanwhile, an assessment team drove out to talk to residents and compile work orders that would be given to Rubicon’s foot soldiers.
Five days after the storm, Team Rubicon’s two dozen volunteers were ready to go. They began the morning by hoisting an American flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the sunbaked parking lot of a Home Depot, where they had established their field head- quarters. Many had thrown sleeping bags in their cars and driven from as far as three hundred miles away. Some were college students who had decided to skip a week of classes to help. Others were self- employed or unemployed. A few had taken vacation time off from their jobs. One enterprising woman from Oklahoma City had persuaded her boss to handle her absence the same way the firm would treat an employee’s National Guard deployment—with full pay.
Joseph D’Amico, a burly former Marine turned entrepreneur, had been driving from Texas to his home in Connecticut with his fiancée, Pam Izzo, when he heard that Rubicon was responding to the tornado. He quickly diverted his Audi. He had served on a Rubicon tornado relief team a year earlier in Oklahoma and wanted to show Pam, a nurse, what it was all about. A few hours after they arrived in Arkansas, Pam had changed into a Rubicon shirt and was hauling tree branches.
Everybody on Team Rubicon was a veteran, except for Pam. Three had fought in Vietnam. The rest, all in their twenties and thirties, had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or both. After spending years in the military taking orders, all of them had earned the right to kick back and let others do the hard work during moments of national crisis. But, motivated by television footage of the tornado’s aftermath, they wanted to help. When Rubicon told its members about the opportunity to lend a hand in Arkansas, the organization restricted sign-ups to those living within two hundred miles of the storm site, to limit long drives and avoid expensive reimbursements for gasoline. The circle on the map excluded several members living in Texas and Oklahoma who were eager to participate. They received dispensation to come, if they agreed to carpool to save on gas money.
Although they didn’t wear camouflage or carry weapons, Rubicon members ran the assistance effort with the same organization, expedition, and nomenclature as a military mission. Their head- quarters was called the FOB—forward operating base. The command staff divided their functions as a battalion staff would, into operations, planning, communications, medical, and logistics. There was a morning brief, after which the group ate whatever chow was provided—often fried-chicken sandwiches from Chick-fil-A. They wore identical gray T-shirts, each emblazoned with their name, and divided themselves into teams named Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie, to fulfill work orders issued by the mission’s commander. Before they departed from the parking lot each day, they checked out equipment from neatly organized toolsheds, cleaning and testing their chain saws as they once did M16s. At night, they slept on Army-issue cots in a warehouse. Their endeavor even had a name: Operation Rising Eagle.
On the seventh morning after the tornado, once the flag raising and fried-chicken breakfast were finished, the incident commander, Chad Reynolds, told the volunteers that the headquarters had a large pile of outstanding work requests. “We’re behind the eight ball,” he said. “Let’s get out there and get stuff done.”
Before they left, the group received a weather report—another hot, sunny day—and a warning from the health officer. “Be careful of snakes, scorpions, chiggers, and meth labs.”
The Alpha team packed its pickup under the exacting eye of its leader, Randi Gavell, a petite former Army military police staff sergeant, who enforced the same standards she applied in Iraq, when her platoon’s Humvees were loaded with ammunition and ready-to-eat meals. Two ladders, two chain saws, two axes. A sledgehammer and shovel for everyone. Every implement was assembled neatly in the truck bed.
They drove for twenty minutes, sitting as they would if in the Army—the junior guy behind the wheel, Gavell in the front passenger seat, and the others on the rear bench—before turning onto Clover Ridge Drive. Because every house on the block had been eviscerated and every mailbox uprooted, Gavell and the five other veterans on her team had to count their way to the eighth dwelling on the right, number 16. This was the Hunters’ home.
As Gavell’s team huddled on the driveway, tools in hand, she informed them that their work site was a DBS—death by storm—house. Her information was jumbled, as can often happen in the chaotic days after a disaster. She told them a six-year-old boy had been killed in the home. She didn’t know—nor did anyone else at Rubicon—that Tim Hunter worked for the Arkansas National Guard. Even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered. Although Rubicon volunteers take particular pleasure in aiding fellow veterans, they triage work orders based on need, not military service.
“Yeah, it’s hot and muggy and dirty, and it’s hard work,” Gavell told her crew. “But if you see a brick on the ground, remember that brick could have seen a child’s first steps, it saw family dinners and first dates and birthdays. It saw their lives. This was their everything.” Gavell urged her team to take a break if the work got too taxing or emotionally overwhelming. “You’re humans. You have souls. It’s going to be hard,” she said.
The two burliest guys, Cody Wright and Tyler Bacon, both members of the Arkansas National Guard whose units had not been activated for storm response, swung sledgehammers at the remnants of the kitchen and master bathroom. Gavell tucked her dirty-blond hair under a white hard hat that carried a bumper sticker declaring, “Women who behave rarely make history,” and began prying apart wooden cabinets with a crowbar. Others used shovels, wheelbarrows, and their gloved hands to deposit the debris in giant piles along the street, next to a red Ford Contour that had been tossed into the front yard as a child might discard a Matchbox car.
If they spotted an item that appeared to be irreplaceable—a ribbon from a sports contest, an old photograph, a piece of needle-point—it was put aside. But everything else that had made the Hunter house a home was swept away: a Linkin Park compact disc, a bottle of rainbow-colored cake sprinkles, a package of Glade air freshener, a wooden wall clock.
Gavell encouraged her teammates to stay hydrated and take a breather when needed. But she couldn’t afford to allow them to lollygag. There were dozens more houses that they needed to get to. She couldn’t yell at slackers the way she did in the Army. These people were, after all, volunteers who could simply leave if they wanted. So she led by example, rarely pausing in her labor, and cajoled others to follow her lead. The old sergeant Gavell burst forth only once, when one member of her team grabbed a wooden duck from a trash pile. “We don’t take anything,” she admonished. “I don’t care if it’s garbage.”
After a brief break to scarf down boxed lunches provided by church volunteers, Gavell instructed her team to remove everything from the concrete slab on which the house had been built. Otherwise, she said, county inspectors would not be able to issue the family a permit to construct a new house. So they continued hammering, shoveling, and sweeping for another two hours. When they finished, she gathered them around once again. “You guys are fucking rock stars,” she gushed. “You just cleared off a path to rebuild dreams.”
Team Rubicon’s journey to Arkansas began with the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010. Jacob Wood, a former Marine sniper who had witnessed no dearth of carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan, was shaken by television footage of the shattered Caribbean island nation.
This looks just like Fallujah, he thought. I should get down there. I can make a difference. A moment later, he checked himself. What the fuck am I going to do? I’m one guy. Nobody will think this is a good idea.
But Wood didn’t permit prudence to scuttle his impulse. He relished challenges. He had attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison on a football scholarship, playing on the offensive line. He had thought about walking away from school just three weeks into his freshman year, right after the 9/11 attacks, but he figured it made sense to finish studying before serving. As he learned more about the wars, his desire to join the military only grew. In his junior year, that desire became resolve after reading news reports of the Marines’ first campaign to retake the Iraqi town of Fallujah and after learning that Pat Tillman, who had given up a promising National Football League career to become an Army Ranger, had been killed in Afghanistan. Although most college graduates opt to become officers, Wood didn’t want to wait a year—while he went through officer school and was assigned to lead a platoon—to engage in combat. So he enlisted in the Marines and became a private.
Transformed by boot camp from a beefy lineman to a chiseled infantryman, he soon found himself on the outskirts of Fallujah, but he didn’t stay a buck private for long. He was a natural leader, and his intellect and thirst for action attracted quick notice. He had arrived in Iraq in charge of a four-man team; two weeks later, he was promoted to corporal and named co-leader of a squad, directing his men through near-daily ambushes and roadside bomb blasts. A year and a half later, after graduating from Marine sniper school at the top of his class, he went to southern Afghanistan for seven months.
His dangerous stint there stripped away the last of his college- student fantasies about w...
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