When we heard the news of Peter Kassig’s capture by ISIS terrorists, it felt like a punch in the gut. While we don’t know Peter, the organization he founded, SERA (Special Emergency Response and Assistance) is much like our own, Team Rubicon. Since 2010, we have been recruiting, training and deploying thousands of military veterans to serve communities afflicted by disasters. Our members are ideally suited for these missions, bringing such skills as strong leadership, effective decision-making and the ability to operate in austere environments with limited information.
As effective as Team Rubicon has become at assisting victims of disasters, the service itself has had a profound impact on our members. During one of our missions to Pakistan in 2010, former Marines and SEALs delivering lifesaving aid realized that the villagers they were helping had never before seen Americans in that light. Those veterans were able to return to a part of the world that had taken something from them– a friend, a limb, a notion of innocence–and replace it with something entirely good. We suspect Peter was driven by a similar impulse.
Imagine if, over the coming decades, the United States could shift the mindset of rural villagers in Pakistan or Iraq or Yemen by sending highly skilled aid workers to serve and teach alongside them. Who better than military veterans to fill that role? How much farther could we get with an army of humanitarians than with ever expanding fleets of drones? With over 2 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is sitting on a reservoir of ready and able humanitarians. The challenge is finding a way to re-deploy them not as warriors, but as peacemakers.
To start with, the broader public should know that 92% of returning veterans want to continue serving their country. Tapping into this talent is a no-brainer. Privately funded organizations like Team Rubicon are a good start. With nearly 20,000 members, we have deployed to more than 70 disasters across the globe. But any comprehensive solution will require government support. To that end, agencies such as the Peace Corps and USAID should create fast-track programs that enable military veterans to transition seamlessly into humanitarian positions.
We understand the risks involved. One of us, a former Navy pilot, served as a human rights advocate in Afghanistan upon leaving the military. The other, a former Marine sniper who led teams in both Afghanistan and Iraq, helped lead combat medics and doctors down to Haiti four days after the earthquake. As veterans who served during wartime, and chose to return to the front lines as humanitarians, we appreciate better than most that our military is the world’s largest disaster response organization. More importantly, we know that we carry those skills into civilian life.
Every member of Team Rubicon signed up because of his or her time in uniform, not in spite of it. They too know the risks, but still ask “If not me, then who?” Peter Kassig did the same. His bravery and compassion bear witness to an entire generation of veterans who wish to serve humanity. We, his brothers in arms, long for the day when all might answer as he did, “Send me.”
Jake Wood is a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, CEO of Team Rubicon and author of Take Command. Ken Harbaugh is a former Navy pilot and COO of Team Rubicon.