Kevin Ryan felt his heart grow full as he watched reunions between veterans and Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy — a U.S. Army installation near Tomah, Wisconsin.

Despite the grim circumstances, the two groups of people found familiarity in the uncertainty.

“They [the veterans] were actually bumping into Afghan allies that they had served with,” Ryan said. “You have these really emotional reunions. So for them, it fulfilled a need and it really did help them gain some closure.”

After over 124,000 citizens were vacated from Kabul in 2021, Fort McCoy became one of many U.S. bases to temporarily house Afghan evacuees. Over 12,500 Afghans arrived at Fort McCoy in September following Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, according to TIME.

Despite talk of pulling trooping out of Afghanistan throughout the past three presidential administrations, the U.S. immigration system was not prepared for the influx of people, according to the New York Times. This concern persists as the Biden administration struggles to resettle people in the army bases.

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Compounding the issue is the legal status of Afghan immigrants — or lack thereof. Due to the quick nature of the withdrawal, the federal government created a special status for Afghan refugees. This allows them to stay in the U.S. to apply for asylum, but asylum status has a one year filing deadline. On top of this, many of the evacuated Afghans still have families in Afghanistan who could not come to the United States because they did not qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa, also known as SIV.

Despite the system’s shortcomings, many local organizations have stepped up to provide evacuees with the resources they need to survive as the immigration process stalls. Among these organizations is Team Rubicon — a disaster relief program created and fueled by veterans and others who want to help people impacted by humanitarian crises.

Former University of Wisconsin football player and Marine Corps veteran Jake Woods co-founded Team Rubicon in 2010 after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti. Since then, the organization has been a key player in providing aid to communities in need.

Team Rubicon calls their operation at Fort McCoy “Enduring Eagle.” Ryan, the Team Rubicon Volunteer Communications Lead, has been extremely active in Team Rubicon’s involvement at the army base.

Ryan said Team Rubicon is a “focal point” for everything that comes in at Fort McCoy. They work closely with groups in Madison and throughout Wisconsin, such as Lutheran Social Services, Jewish Social Services and Catholic charities who gauge what the Afghans need and relay that to Team Rubicon. The volunteers, or “Greyshirts,” coordinate and put together pallets of goods based on these requests for Team Rubicon’s community partners to pick up and deliver.

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Ryan said donors have been extremely generous in their contributions to the work at Fort McCoy. Cold weather boots, jackets, Columbia coats, 20 pallets of different size diapers, kids clothes and baby clothes were some of the donations made to Team Rubicon. 

The efforts to help Afghan refugees have well expanded beyond solely benefitting the evacuees, Ryan said. Extra donated clothes that are too big are redistributed to shelters around Milwaukee for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Ryan said Team Rubicon has a range of veterans who served in Vietnam, the First Gulf War, Second Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. Ryan, who is a veteran, said the companionship he found at Team Rubicon was similar to the companionship he found when he was overseas.

“From my own personal standpoint as a vet, I really found myself missing that camaraderie that you get when you go into a really tough situation,” Ryan said. “Everybody has to pull together to accomplish the mission. That’s just really hard to replicate once you’re out of the military.”

Team Rubicon’s Milwaukee City Administrative Leader Glenn McCullough said many of the 1,200 Greyshirts in Milwaukee are veterans, and other volunteers are involved in public service through different avenues. 

“I would say 70% are veterans,” McCullough said. “Thirty percent are what we refer to as ‘kick ass civilians.’ They are doctors, nurses, policemen, firemen, paramedics and then just regular crazy civilians.”

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As Marine Corps veteran, McCullough helped with the organization of the donations at Fort McCoy. After watching Hurricane Harvey destroy parts of Texas in September of 2017, McCullough reached out to a well-known disaster relief organization and got no response. It turned out to be one of the best things that happened to him because it led him to Team Rubicon.

McCullough said there are three similarities between his time serving in the Marine Corps and his time at Team Rubicon — organization, purpose and teamwork.

“When you’re associated with people that are of like mind that are looking to accomplish a goal in this particular goal, this is to help people that are going through possibly the worst days of their life and you gather together to go help a community,” McCullough said. “You form a bond.”

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McCullough has been instrumental in Team Rubicon efforts for Hurricane Ida, Fort McCoy and other sites. Sarah Rogers, Glenn’s partner, said Glenn’s idea of public service and being of service to others has changed him a lot. Sarah said Team Rubicon made Glenn more empathetic and aware.

“When I’m walking through an airport with my Team Rubicon go-bag on and I’m gonna be getting on a plane to go help some community that’s been hit by tornadoes or hurricanes or floods, I feel like I’ve got a cape on,” Glenn McCullough said. “It’s just myself and my teammates and we’re on the way to come help your community.”

Team Rubicon’s work at Fort McCoy is set to wrap up by the end of April.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated with a correction to Sarah Rogers’ last name.