War veterans find new meaning in civilian life by responding to disasters
When soldier Geoff Evans was serving in Afghanistan in 2010, a roadside bomb exploded underneath him.
His spine was crushed and he had a brain injury so severe, he couldn’t write his own name.
While in recovery, the former Australian Army Lieutenant met a homeless veteran. The encounter led to his decision to start a charity to support veterans who were living rough.
But he didn’t stop there.
“What I noticed working with those men is that we could give them everything they needed, from accommodation to food, but we could never give them a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” Mr Evans said.
In 2016, he founded the first Australian branches of Team Rubicon in Queensland and New South Wales.
The disaster response and recovery organisation helps communities in need and was formed in the United States in 2010 after the devastating earthquake in Haiti which killed 200,000 people.
“It [Team Rubicon] takes veterans and reuses their skills but it’s all about giving them back a sense of purpose and saying to them — hey, you are actually valuable once you leave the military,” Mr Evans said.
“When you say veteran in Australia, people either think of an old guy with medals or a young guy who’s sitting in the gutter in need of charity.
“People don’t think of young men and woman with a lot to offer to the community.”
Mental health at forefront of organisation
Mr Evans has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since returning from his deployment.
“When you first come back from war, you feel like a bit of a stranger in a strange land.”
He said while Team Rubicon focused on responding to disasters, mental health was very much at the forefront of the organisation.
“We know from tracking data that a lot of veterans come into Team Rubicon at about a two or a three on the wellness scale and when we deploy them they bounce back up to an eight or nine.
“Because they’re suddenly gainfully employed again, they have their identity back and they’re back among like-minded individuals.
“There’s just nowhere else where you can get a group of alpha males sitting around talking about mental health,” Mr Evans said.
Sense of purpose lost after service
32-year-old Peter Sanderson served six years in the Australian Army before he was medically discharged with injuries in 2011.
“After leaving the Army I lost the sense of purpose and meaning to what I was doing and I couldn’t find that in most jobs that I ended up applying for,” he said.
That was until a Facebook post about Team Rubicon popped up in his newsfeed and he applied.
He has since helped with disaster relief in Proserpine in north Queensland after Cyclone Debbie in 2017 and in Tathra in New South Wales after the 2018 bushfires.
“Even after just one week, the feeling I got from it was absolutely fantastic,” he said.
“You’re with a large bunch of like-minded people and you don’t really care about what conditions you deal with, because you are literally dealing with people going through the worst parts of their lives and you’re just doing what you can to help them get through it.
“The sense of accomplishment and purpose that you get from it, is difficult to explain to people.”
On duty in Victoria
Team Rubicon was established in Victoria in January this year and already has 150 members including emergency service first responders and military veterans.
The Victorian branch recently undertook its first community service in Ararat, helping Parks Victoria clear trees for a hiking trail.
The exercise was also about keeping members prepared for disasters.
“When we were in our first mission in Proserpine after Cyclone Debbie, I would have veterans say to me, ‘Thanks for building an organisation that gives me a reason to get up in the morning’,” he said.
“When you see veterans helping people who are traumatised, the relationships form and that’s a magical moment.”