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SERVICE THAT MATTERS By Jake Wood

I just flew cross country, from my home in Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, to give a speech. It’s my first time out and about since becoming a father in October. In fact, it was the voice of my sweet daughter, Valija, that served as my way-too-early-morning wake-up call, much to my sleep deprived chagrin.

I’d been on paternity leave since my wife, Indra, and I brought our first-born home from the hospital a little more than a month ago. The time off made me appreciate a lot of things about being a first-time father. There are all these new discoveries — sounds, smells, tastes, emotions — and all these new challenges to my endurance and personal hygiene. I admit there were a few times there where I suddenly realized I’d gone several days without showering, shaving or brushing my teeth.

If you’re a parent, younger or older, I know you can relate.

Being the CEO of Team Rubicon is my calling and my passion, but it was good to get away from the day-to-day for a while.

TR is a non-governmental service organization for military veterans that I helped create in 2010. We respond to disasters all around the world — earthquakes, floods, fires, tornadoes — organizing and deploying 90,000 U.S. veterans as volunteers. We’re always busy, always thinking, always on alert. We’ve assisted in over 300 global emergencies and counting. It’s important, satisfying, gratifying work.

But stepping away from it for a few weeks was good for me. Not only did I connect with my wife and our precious child, I had a chance to look back on the path that brought me here on Veteran’s Day.

I’m just a kid from Bettendorf, Iowa, lucky enough to get a college education thanks to a football scholarship to Wisconsin. Someone who first began thinking about being a Marine when he was 7. Someone who enlisted in the Marine Corps after four years on campus in Madison. Someone who did two tours of duty, one in Iraq in 2007 and one in Afghanistan in 2008. Someone who returned home in one piece after being honorably discharged in 2009.

One of the things that struck me during my paternity leave is how it must have been for the guys I served with to leave families behind. I always had guys in my platoon who were married. Some had kids. Some had wives who were pregnant. Meanwhile, I always deployed as a bachelor, entirely unencumbered.

I always thought it was hard to leave home, but now, being a father, I try to imagine how much harder it must have been for the guys with families. Knowing how many guys we lost over there who left widows and kids without fathers… it breaks my heart.

. . .

Looking back, there were three moments in my life that pushed me toward the military. The first occurred when I was 7 and, during a family trip to Europe, we visited Mauthausen, a World War II concentration camp in Austria.

I was pretty young, but not so young where you can’t think through cause and effect or think through consequences. Kids can process reactions to events. There are few places that elicit as much emotion in a 7-year-old as a concentration camp, particularly as you’re walking through and seeing these exhibits and in half of them there are children clinging to their mothers and walking off to gas chambers. The other exhibits that caught my eye were the ones of the liberation, when the US Army came in and saved the remaining Jews.

Inspired by that, when I was in high school I thought I wanted to attend one of the service academies — Air Force, Army and Navy — and even began the process of soliciting nominations from my congressman when I was a sophomore.

But then I started getting recruited for football, which brought me to the University of Wisconsin and another nudge toward being a Marine. I was a freshman when terrorists attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001.

I break my time in Madison into two separate buckets. There was the campus and there was the football program. Both were extremely formative for me.

On the campus side, the city after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq taught me a lot about perspective. I had conversations with people from all across the country, all across the world whose life experiences were so much different than mine growing up in a small town in Iowa. It taught me to think through situations and really strive to be empathetic and understand both sides of the problem.

It really made me proud to be an American because there were protests every day and often they were protests I disagreed with, but, nevertheless, I’d see these protests and I couldn’t help but be proud to be an American. Seeing people exercising their right to assemble and speak freely against the government is quintessentially American. I appreciated it at the time, but I think I appreciated it tenfold after going overseas and seeing countries where local government officials wouldn’t hesitate to fire AK-47s into crowds.

I have the same sense of understanding now watching athletes of all ages taking a knee to protest social injustice. In my opinion, we’re foolish if we don’t believe there remains systemic injustice in a lot of our institutions. For me as a white male to tell a young black man to just suck it up — to imply that he has the same opportunities that I do — is just ridiculous.

In the locker room at Wisconsin and in the Marine Corps I’ve gotten to know a lot of men that were from very disenfranchised communities, from disenfranchised backgrounds and cultures and ethnicities, and I know now that it’s a fallacy that we all have the same opportunities in America. We may all have the same finish line in mind, but our starting lines are wildly different.

Playing football for the Badgers got me ready for the military. Part of it was physical, learning the grit, the hustle, the tenacity that Barry Alvarez’s teams were synonymous with. That old coal miner’s bring-your-lunch-pail-to-work mentality. That’s something I’ve tried to carry forward.

I also learned a lot of humility there. I battled injuries most of the time I was there. I was fairly heavily recruited coming in and, year one, I was not living up to expectations. There was humility serving as a backup for four years. I had to learn how to be a contributor without being in the starting lineup on Saturdays. That taught me a lot.

I enlisted in the Marines not long after Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in April of 2004. He was a man of honor, someone I look up to and think about often. He was a person of great conviction. He did what he thought was right regardless of the personal costs. He was a free thinker. If you read the books about him, the common theme about Pat is that he was deeply thoughtful. He formed his own opinions. They were always informed opinions. And many of them were unpopular, particularly in the circles he ran in, whether it was an NFL locker room or a Ranger regiment. It always seemed like he bucked conventions. He had courage that went above and beyond picking up a rifle and running up a hill. His courage was intellectual as much as anything.

I never got to meet Pat, but one of the cool things I’ve been able to do since leaving the Marine Corps is getting to know his wife, his widow, Marie, fairly well. Of course, it was an immense honor for me to receive the Pat Tillman Award for Courage at the ESPYs earlier this year.

. . .

I remember taking my late father, Jeff, to a bar and telling him I was enlisting. I remember him sitting there, quiet at first, then saying he wasn’t entirely surprised. We agreed to keep it from my mom, Christy, for a while.

She found out by accident. I’d started to tell some people, some close friends from high school, and I remember leaving a chat window open on my computer back in Iowa. My mom saw it.

Anyway, we were walking the dog and she said, “Hey, I wasn’t snooping, but I saw this. Is this true?’’ I told her. She cried and asked me to reconsider, but only once. I told her I was committed and she never asked me again. She kind of reverted into a tough, I’m-going-to-be-strong mode and largely kept that disposition throughout.

One of the dirty little secrets about war is it’s pretty addictive. Not a whole lot of people want to hear that. Not a whole lot of people want to say that. But that’s certainly one side of it. It’s a combination of the hardship, the brotherhood and the adrenaline. It’s a cocktail that can’t be replicated anywhere else in society.

Then there’s the other side, the tragic side. I experienced plenty of both. We lost a little more than 30 men over my two tours, all really good guys. Each one of their deaths was a tragedy and you do your best to wrap that tragedy into a narrative of the mission we were doing and the greater cause, and sometimes that helps. That’s a salve on the wound. That makes it more tolerable.

I’m just a kid from Bettendorf, Iowa, lucky enough to get a college education thanks to a football scholarship to Wisconsin. Someone who first began thinking about being a Marine when he was 7. Someone who enlisted in the Marine Corps after four years on campus in Madison.

One of the things I came to realize after four years in the Marines was that the mission wasn’t moving. The winning or losing, that wasn’t the litmus test we had. It was just trying to maintain the status quo and that didn’t seem worth sacrificing for. Coupled with that, I felt like I was becoming too accustomed to the violence.

To put it simply, I guess war was becoming a little too easy. I was proud of everything that I’d done. I had all my fingers and my toes. I had my integrity and honor intact. I hadn’t done anything I’d regretted. But I felt myself slipping into this zone where war was becoming normal and there’s nothing normal about war. I was self-aware enough to realize that and I decided it wasn’t for me. That wasn’t how I wanted to define my life, so I made the tough call to get out.

I endured combat because I had a lot of advantages. I was older than the average Marine I fought along with; I was 22, 23 when I enlisted. I’d already been through four years of college football. I was mentally tough and resilient going in.

I had a great family, a great support system. I had two parents that loved me. Three sisters — Erin, Sarah and Meghan — that loved me. I had friends concerned for me and I had good leaders who took care of me, who didn’t put me in a position that I had to compromise my personal values.

When I came home I was physically whole. I felt mentally and emotionally drained, but I didn’t feel mentally and emotionally compromised.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but Veteran's Day has always made me feel a little uncomfortable. A lot of the veterans I know, who I’m close with, get a little uncomfortable when people thank us for our service or make a big deal out of our service. I don’t know what to say when someone thanks me for my service. I usually mumble something.

Historically at Team Rubicon we’ve tried to take an approach of, hey, we don’t need to march in a parade - we’d rather be out working in the community, demonstrating the kind of service that perhaps does differentiate us.

When I wake up on Veteran’s Day, I’ll certainly spend some time thinking about the guys I served with — reminisce a little bit — but I won’t spend a whole lot of time on it.

I’ve had the honor of meeting with three U.S. presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — to discuss veterans’ issues. To that end, I’m on the advisory board for Global War on Terror War Memorial. It hasn’t been built yet — it will cost between $40 million and $50 million — but legislation authorizing it has been passed.

I’m truly excited about the future of Team Rubicon. We see a lot of opportunity for scale. We really envision having a TR presence in every city around the country. We want to make it an expectation that when a veteran leaves the service that they return to their hometowns and join Team Rubicon and help their communities become more resilient. We look at a future that’s 10 or 20 or 50 times bigger than what we currently are, one that engages the veteran population in meaningful service; one that strengthens communities; one that demonstrates to the next generation of men and women that service in the military is noble and that you don’t come out broken and haunted on the backside, you come out a pillar of your community.

That’s the world I want my daughter, Valija Hope Wood, to know.

If I were to sit down and write her a letter, one she’d read when she could understand its contents, I’d tell her that she’s won the ovarian lottery. That she’s loved by two parents who are educated and successful. That she’ll never go to bed with an empty stomach hearing her parents shouting and cursing at each other. That she’ll never have economic instability or be pulled over for the color of her skin.

I’d tell her that she’s got a responsibility to live a life that pays that forward to people who are less fortunate than her.

Now if she’d only let me sleep in.

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