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Team Rubicon: A private sector approach to disaster relief in Haiti

Here’s an interesting piece by the eight original members of Team Rubicon, a private disaster response outfit. Their description of what they do reminds me of Halo Trust, the mine removal charity — small, and aiming to use local workers as much as possible. In this case, they seem to be using the cohesiveness and ...

Here’s an interesting piece by the eight original members of Team Rubicon, a private disaster response outfit. Their description of what they do reminds me of Halo Trust, the mine removal charity — small, and aiming to use local workers as much as possible. In this case, they seem to be using the cohesiveness and skills they learned in the Marines as the core of their culture. I like how they used that background to deliver medical care.   

Please do read it.

The writers are: "Marines Jake Wood and William McNulty, Doctors David Griswell and Eduardo Dolhun, Firefighters Jeff Lang and Craig Parello, Physician’s Assistant Mark Hayward and Brother Jim Boynton S.J."

In the immediate aftermath of the nearly complete physical and functional collapse of Haiti, a small group of trained and determined individuals began to coalesce with the intention of bringing their capabilities directly to the Haitian people in their moment of extremity. At every turn, big aid organizations not only rejected our team’s offers of assistance, but even attempted to dissuade us from going to render assistance in Port au Prince. With creativity and conviction, Team Rubicon, as we came to be called, found a way to put our original eight members into the devastated city, found a partner eager for our helping hands, and found that, contrary to everything the big aid bureaucracies were saying, small and skilled teams of military combat veterans and seasoned first responders were exactly what could render immediate, life-saving assistance in this situation.

Team Rubicon was self-financed — and it did not take all that much money to put our initial plans into action. Rather than wait for every possible contingency to be addressed, we constantly moved forward, while still developing the specifics of our mission. Nearly all of our meetings and conferences, our consultations with people of experience in different fields, our fund-raising and our communication with supporters, took place in cyberspace, in real time and with instant results.

Team Rubicon’s experience has presented a new template which should be carefully considered by disaster relief organizations: discrete, semi-autonomous teams of cross-trained individuals can render emergency medical care, and provide invaluable "medical intelligence." We overcame the chaos and lack of access to resources by going directly to the refugee camps, treating most problems on-site, and evacuating complex cases to surgical care. By a process of total immersion, we acquired local assets and worked with local residents to help mitigate potential security situations in their neighborhoods and help navigate through their own demolished city. By this act of partnering with the people we were there to aid, we began the work of helping the Haitian people to rebuild their lives, not become dependant on some truly foreign organization.

In the last ten years, the American armed forces have talked about transformation into smaller, lighter, more rapidly deployed units. It should come as no surprise that those of us who put together Team Rubicon were products of the Marine Corps, America’s original expeditionary force; and our initiative appealed immediately to other former military medics and personnel. In essence, what Team Rubicon represents, then, is the kind of new and innovative thinking the U.S. military has been attempting to apply to its own operations.

Team Rubicon’s approach, and its success, should alert the big aid organizations that a new paradigm for effective disaster relief has developed. Time and again, we discovered that the big aid organizations were encumbered by inefficient operations, poor and inaccurate information, and an inherently risk-averse mentality. In this context, risk-averse becomes service-averse, because when minutes and hours count, there is no time for lengthy debates about exposure to liability. We accepted a certain level of inherent risk and acted swiftly. We did not wait for circumstances to become ideal.

Grossly sensationalistic and, in some cases, patently deceptive media reports did not help the big aid organizations overcome their institutional inertia. We prepared to protect our medical care-providers from physical violence, but we found none. Once on the ground, we were able to develop a valid situation assessment that allowed us to discount the dire picture the media was painting. If the big aid organizations had this kind of ability to insert trained personnel into the field rapidly, they too could have realized that the truth of the matter in Port au Prince was very different from what the broadcast media was selling.

Yet, above all, the paradigm shift that Team Rubicon represents is a movement entirely away from bureaucracy. The big aid organizations are burdened with multiple layers of middle management that stifle creativity and innovation. The big aid organizations have ample supplies but are shockingly slow to dispense them, if only because the bureaucratic processes and paperwork take precedence over making a rapid first response. We rejected the big aid organizations’ vertical decision making model, and created a horizontal, cellular model, whereby individual teams have been given autonomy to operate according to their own discretion.

This is not to say that there is no place for big aid organizations, both governmental and non-governmental. It is, however, to sound a clarion call for a reworking of how such organizations find the right people and put the right people into the field in time to do the most good. In truth, we on Team Rubicon could not have done what good we did in our corner of Port au Prince had it not been for a very big and very old international aid organization — the Jesuits.

When all the other big aid organizations rejected our offers of assistance, the Jesuits welcomed them eagerly. We picked up our Jesuit contact in Santo Domingo, and he led us across the border into Haiti. The Jesuits housed Team Rubicon in their novitiate in Port au Prince and provided us with the shelter, food, and water necessary to carry out our mission. The critical difference between the Jesuits’ approach and that of the big aid organizations, is that the Jesuits work in small numbers, living in the areas affected, working as partners with the people in need, and encouraging individual initiative on the part of team members.

The original eight members of Team Rubicon, save for the Jesuit who stayed behind in Port au Prince, are all back in the United States now, having returned to our regular lives as firefighters, general practitioners, and businessmen. Over the internet, new volunteers made contact and made plans to replace the original eight, in even greater numbers. And though Team Rubicon’s work has discontinued in Haiti, our experience serves as a new model to bridge the critical time gap between large natural disasters and conventional aid response.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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