Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.
“One of the most underrated characteristics of a good leader is vulnerability, being willing and able to acknowledge when you're not the best at something, you're not the right person for a job that you don't know the answer or that you have a weakness... And I'm willing to surround myself with people who are better than me and I'm also not afraid to tell people when I'm struggling with something.” - Jake Wood
Jake Wood, veteran and CEO of Team Rubicon, talks about his new memoir, the value of veterans serving in disaster relief, and the power of vulnerability in leaders.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Jake Wood: One of the most underrated characteristics of a good leader is vulnerability, being willing and able to acknowledge when you're not the best at something, you're not the right person for a job that you don't know the answer or that you have a weakness... And I'm willing to surround myself with people who are better than me and I'm also not afraid to tell people when I'm struggling with something.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today, Jake Wood, is a Marine Corps combat veteran, CEO and co-founder of Team Rubicon and the author of Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home. He is also one of the best people I know. Jake, this is going to be a strange interview because we've worked together to build an organization, we've served together in disaster zones, and now I get to ask you a bunch of personal questions. Either way, welcome to Burn the Boats. How you doing?
JW: I'm doing well. I'm a little nervous. It's actually harder to be interviewed by someone you know as well as we know each other than a total stranger. You know where all the skeletons are buried, I guess.
KH: Indeed I do. But I've taken it upon myself to dig deep for some of those skeletons. I won't embarrass you too much but I finished reading Once a Warrior last night and it made me think about the... What was it called? The Jake's Life blog. And it got me really inside your head in thinking about how you approach storytelling and writing. And I just wanted to ask you who you think of when you put pen to paper? Are you really speaking to an audience or is it more of a personal catharsis for you?
JW: That's a tough question. I think I write for me most often. I've always enjoyed writing. I enjoyed courses in high school and in college that required a lot of writing. I've always found it to be a fun, mental or intellectual exercise to structure thoughts. And I'm not always a succinct writer but I try to be a provocative or evocative writer. You alluded to Jake's Life blog. I started writing overseas really as an attempt even though I didn't know it at the time at catharsis to really just help me process what I was experiencing. And not even always just a process, but just to memorialize what I was experiencing. I think one of the hallmarks of combat is it's really hard sometimes to remember how these things unfold. Some of those moments, they're seared in your memory through smell or taste or sight or sound, but sometimes the details just get lost. And they were such powerful moments, I didn't want to lose them. And so, at least the elements of the book that talk about my wartime experience, a lot of that was captured at least structurally as it was happening, which I thought was neat as this was now getting published 15 years later.
KH: You talk about the formative experience of combat and I want to read back to you a passage from the book that as you said memorializes that. It's describing the immediate aftermath of a firefight in Iraq when your unit has done its job and the firefight is still raging. And here's what you wrote, "The firefight continued raging outside. Wrapped in relative safety, I melted into a corner and closed my eyes. The other swap stories one-upping each other. I sat and listened - not to the stories, but to a lingering thought in the back of my head, 'That shit was amazing.' I suddenly realized my life would forever be defined by combat." What did you mean by that?
JW: You know, most people, they resort to these phrases that are probably as old as war itself like war is hell. And there's truth to that. War is awful. We should never aspire to war. But there's this dark underbelly of it, which is that there's an exhilaration in combat that is... I don't do drugs, right, but I have to imagine it's only comparable to the feeling that somebody gets on the most powerful drugs on the market, this physiological response to it that is breathtaking. And it goes beyond the physiological. There was just the mental and emotional of it, literally staring death in its face and surviving. It's terrifying because you have these moments where you realize how people can get addicted to that. And I'm not sure I really comprehended that in that moment. But in that moment as I was sitting there in the back of that truck with bullets literally pinging off the sides of the armor, I just remember thinking to myself, "This will be a turning point in my life. I will never be able to go back to who I was before this moment."
KH: And do you pine for the innocence lost? I'm looking now at one of the first things you wrote in that blog from many, many years ago as you were about to ship out to boot camp. Let's contextualize this, this is a young 20 something writing in eager anticipation of joining the Marine Corps. You wrote, "Peace out civilian world. I'll see you in 13 weeks as a Marine. Check back here. I might have my parents write some updates for me on how I'm doing in boot camp. Otherwise, put the beers on ice." I'm glad we could laugh about that. Because the contrast to the soberness of your writing today, your honesty about combat and the effect it had on your soul, on your character is striking. Do you ever miss the old Jake?
JW: I think that that old Jake that you reference was representative of most young men and probably most young women who join the military, this cocksure and thinking that they're off on this grand adventure, but supremely naive as to what it all means. And no, I don't know that I pine for to be that person again. At one point in the book I write by design this rambling essay on what does it mean to be a warrior after you've served and what's the future hold. And I asked the question, "What if I had never joined the military? What would I have become? What was the cost of the lessons I've learned in those four years? What were those lessons - what were they even?" And I think I realized that a lot of the experiences I had overseas were terrifying. They were tragic. I certainly don't look at them necessarily fondly, but they made me who I am. And they've made me stronger. They've given me a greater appreciation for life, a greater appreciation for the world, a better lens to view the world with empathy and compassion. And I don't know that I trade that for anything.
KH: But the cost of that growth, the cost of those lessons, as you put, it is higher than most people can possibly imagine when you count up the number of friends lost, when you count the nightmares that you have to endure when you count the uncertainty about the nobility of the cause. And I'm drawn to another passage from the book, when you talk about stepping off the buses and greeting families with heads held high but then you say that, "Not many of us sustain the illusion..." and I'm quoting now, "That whatever we accomplished was worth the price we paid. Inside, we were tired and hurting. Some wondered why or how they'd made it home at all. Others wished they hadn't." Can you talk about the war at home and what a burden this generation of veterans has had to carry because of what they, we, you were asked to do on behalf of the country in Iraq and Afghanistan?
JW: Sure. Let me start by saying, I'm proud of my service. Our country was attacked on 9/11, men and women who were wearing the uniform at the time marched off to war to defend our country. There was no precedent for what we were experiencing, such a stateless act of violence. And it inspired tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of more men and women to join. And then we later invaded Iraq. And that was a war that I supported at the time. And I supported it in 2007 as I was getting ready to deploy to Anbar province as part of the surge. The passage that you read is upon my return coming back from Iraq. And I think at that point in time, nobody was still under the illusion that there were weapons of mass destruction. And we lost a dozen men overseas on that tour. It was a really violent tour. And we had to carry that forward with us. And we made progress while we were there. 2007 was a turning point in the war. We largely eradicated Al-Qaeda in Iraq during that 18 month period, we made peace with the Sunni militants in Anbar Province, elections were being held, young girls were getting back into school, real progress was being made. But we also asked ourselves at what cost. As I look, and you fast forward 10 years, there were a lot of men that I served with who hung on those incremental improvements that we made that I just talked about. And they said, "Yes,” they were able to justify the cost. But then in 2014, 2015, you saw the rise of ISIS and it just wiped all of that out. It just took all of that progress that was made, the years and billions of dollars spent training the Iraqi military, the blood that we'd spilled on that soil. And you saw it all just evaporate in that moment. And you realized that not even that thread of hanging onto the hope that we'd made Iraq better for some corner of that population, it just disappeared. And for those guys, now their rationalization, what they'd been convincing themselves, as it left, they just suddenly had to reckon with this, “what did I do and why?” And that was just so hard for guys I served with to cope with. And we had a lot of guys that couldn't cope with it and took their lives.
KH: Do you think the country let you down? I spend a lot of time in VFW and Legion Halls more than you might think because we're losing the generation that fills those seats right now. And I wonder if ours is going to experience that same dejection in 30 and 40 years, the sense that we did our part and we weren't backed up and it was all for naught.
JW: That's a tough question to ask. I think we should be able to have a reasonable debate about whether the grounds for invading Iraq, for example, were warranted. And I think history has passed judgment on that. And they weren't. I don't know that that's when our country let us down. I won't pretend to be in the heads of the people that made those decisions. I'd like to think that they made them for the best intentions. And until I know otherwise, I'll give them that benefit of the doubt. But ultimately, you can make a decision for it with all the best intentions. If it's the wrong decision, at some point you have to own it. I think where America has let us down is in the last decade, the second decade of these wars when we've just decided that no strategy is a fine strategy, that a few dozen deaths a year is an acceptable price to pay for an objective that nobody really understands. I look at that and I think that the apathy towards our continued involvement in these countries is what bothers me the most. War, committing our sons and daughters to war in foreign lands, should never be an out of sight out of mind issue. And that's where we've been let down, is the lack of discourse around what we're still doing.
KH: And how do we address that? Is it just a matter of leadership reminding the American people or is there something more fundamental that the American people themselves can initiate that perhaps veterans can take point on? How do we remind our fellow citizens that Americans continue to die in their name?
JW: Yeah. Well, I think... Man… I think part of that answer lies in the House of Congress and the spineless approach to the authorization for the use of military force that we're still operating under. So, a refusal to take this issue up on the floor of Congress. So, Congress's abdication of this responsibility is really just indicative of Congress's broader abdication of governing, governing effectively at least. So, I mean, it certainly starts there. But politicians at the end of the day are empowered by the people that elect them. And so, because our citizens haven't made this an issue, Congress has been felt empowered not to act. That's just unfortunate. It's probably reflective of the dwindling number of Americans that aspire to or actually serve in the armed forces to begin with. It's really easy to send somebody else's sons and daughters to war for a murky mission. It's a big thorny and complex societal problem that we're dealing with.
KH: I want to believe that at the rate Team Rubicon is growing and with the cache it now has with influencers of all kinds in the media, in government, that it might be part of the solution. So, I want you to talk about where Team Rubicon is today, where you're focusing your energies and where you see it going in the next five years.
JW: Yeah. Today the organization's got about 130,000 volunteers across the country, about 70%-ish give or take, of those volunteers are military veterans. And that's really where our heritage lies, is within this belief that military veterans are uniquely suited for disaster response. This year has been busy. COVID-19 was certainly not on our strategic plan for 2020, as of course it was on no one's, but that didn't stop us from pivoting into it aggressively. And I think we've been able to demonstrate amid the chaos of this pandemic, exactly this value proposition that we've always held, military veterans are truly suited to help lead communities through these moments of crisis. So, as these communities have been overwhelmed with lockdowns, healthcare systems becoming overwhelmed, the challenges of PPE collection and distribution, what do you do with homeless populations who are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic? We've been able to move aggressively in to help solve those problems. Not always because we had a playbook, because we certainly didn't have a playbook for this, but because we had this bias for action and this penchant for solving problems. We've responded in nearly 300 communities across the country. And that's on top of our core mission. The one thing we said early in this was, pardon my language, "Mother nature wasn't going to give a shit about COVID-19. Hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and fires, they weren't going to take a tactical pause because we were dealing with an infectious disease outbreak." If anything, we've seen one of the worst hurricane seasons in recent memory. And so, we had to adapt to COVID without losing sight on our core mission. And we've been able to do that. And as we think about what the potential is for the organization, it's really about how do we ensure that as military service members are leaving their time in active service and they're thinking about what's next, how do we ensure that Team Rubicon is a part of what's next? This idea of continuing their service to strengthen their communities, to make their neighborhoods more resilient in the face of these mounting crises. So, the analogy we've always used is it's like a volunteer fire department. It's a part of the fabric of the community. It's a pillar of citizenship and sacrifice and selflessness that people across the community can look to and say, "Those are the people that hold us together." And that's really what we're looking for.
KH: But it is different in some very fundamental ways from the majority of disaster relief organizations out there because of that bias for action that you described. I mean, you will run through walls if you have to, to help people in need. I’ve got to believe that you attribute that to the veterans in particular that make up the organization and the cultural continuity between your Marine Corps training and Team Rubicon's mission today. How much do you credit that veteran ethos with the culture that Team Rubicon sustains to this day?
JW: I mean, almost entirely. You hit it square on the nose. The men and women who've served whether it's back to Vietnam or through today's wars, they were always handed nearly impossible tasks with limited information and limited resources and told simply to find a way. And I think that's a hallmark of our military is that yes, we have the most funded military in the world. Yes, we have the best technology. We have the best weapon systems but we also have this unique espirit de corps and this cultural ability to overcome impossible odds. And we've seen it tested throughout time, whether battling the Japanese in the Pacific or the Nazis in Germany or entrenched enemy in places like Khe Sanh. Technology and weapons and funding only gets you so far. There are oftentimes it comes down to who can dig deeper within themselves to overcome. I'd like to think that we took that same spirit from the military and encoded it into Team Rubicon's DNA from an early stage.
KH: Well, that's how the organization was born. It was born out of some personal angst, wondering what your mission post-Marine Corps was going to be, running into the crisis of the earthquake in Haiti, right? Can you relate briefly the founding story and those hours you spent on the couch watching what was happening half a world away?
JW: Yeah. Yeah. In many ways, I think that that same naivete that was present in young Jake going off to the Marine Corps was present when still relatively young Jake went off to Haiti. That moment, I was maybe 60 days removed from the Marine Corps, trying to figure out what my next step was going to be in life. And this earthquake hits Haiti. And it's one of the worst humanitarian crises of the century. And looking at it, I was inclined to help. I felt as though I had the relevant skills and experience to help. I'd just gotten back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I'd been in tough situations before. And so, I tried to call the different organizations to offer my services and naturally, they all said, "Thanks, but no thanks." I mean, who's going to send a kid that's calling out of the blue that they've never spoken to a day in their life and say, "Yeah. This is a good idea. Let's just pack this guy up and send him to Haiti and figure it out on the ground"? I don't begrudge those organizations at all for telling me no but I also wasn't satisfied and so, I called a handful of friends. We organized the team, we got down to Haiti and we did good work. I'm not going to sit here and tell your audience that we moved the needle in that massive disaster. But what we did do, we did, we helped hundreds of people that may not have survived had we not been there, people that had limbs amputated, women that were going into labor or cranial fractures. I mean, this was very serious. And so, we certainly saved and impacted lives. But I think the more important thing was we realized, we discovered this idea that, "Hey, veterans are actually pretty good at this. Maybe we could build a new organization that challenges these norms and recruit the 3 million men and women who are coming back from the Middle East and challenge them to repurpose their skills to help in situations like this." And that's what we've been doing ever since.
KH: In the aftermath of that mission and the few that followed, there was another epiphany which was that not only were veterans good at this but it often had a transformative effect on the veterans' outlook. How did you balance that realization and the draw towards an entirely separate mission of providing that kind of cathartic experience to veterans with the primary mission of helping people in the worst days of their lives in the aftermath of a disaster? That's got to be a real tension. And I imagine it's come in to direct conflict at times.
JW: We saw that and it was this unintended consequence, right? This early indication that veterans were themselves getting a lot of personal value out of the service. Veterans aren't unique in that regard. There's plenty of evidence that helping other people makes our lives better, right? We feel better about ourselves. We feel better about the world around us. It lends us a perspective into the challenges that other people face. But I think what was clear was that veterans were coming back from these wars really needing that purpose, that community, that pride in self that comes from serving as compared to their peers. And so, it was interesting. It really was fuel for our mission. These veterans that were joining were so passionate about and not only discovering that for themselves but helping their fellow brothers and sisters in arms discover it on their own. And I'd like to think that that was really a powerful driver of our early growth. But yeah, you indicated it in your question. At times, that brought into conflict the broader mission. From the beginning, our mission has always been to serve communities following disasters and crises. In fact, Ken, you were instrumental in coining some of the language we use around that. Veterans were not the object of our mission, they were the agent of our mission, right? So, the veterans were really the vehicle, the value proposition, the secret sauce that we used in the pursuit of our mission of disaster response. The benefit that they derived from that was really just value -add. It was the gravy. But occasionally, we'd have volunteers that would say that there would be competing priorities. “Well, is this about me or is it about this community that we're serving?” And sometimes that would cause angst. I think over the last couple of years we've done a really good job of recentering the organization outward focused on the survivors of the storms in the situations that we're serving. And I think that that's been a healthy transition for the organization as a whole.
KH: You find yourself now as a leader, an influencer, not just in the disaster relief world but certainly in the veterans world. People look to your example, they look to you for inspiration. And one of the things that has most impressed me about your leadership that I don't think enough people ask you about is the willingness to admit weakness, to talk about things like PTSD and the aftermath of combat. Because the assumption is that it's an admission of weakness that you somehow diminish your stature in other people's eyes when you talk about counseling and things like that in the face of what this generation is enduring though, I think people like you have successfully challenged that. I'm wondering where you found the courage to do it.
JW: I think one of the most underrated characteristics of a good leader is vulnerability, being willing and able to acknowledge when you're not the best at something, you're not the right person for a job, that you don't know the answer or that you have a weakness. And I think I was forced to be vulnerable early in my journey. I was a first-time entrepreneur with no experience, literally no relevant experience when we started Team Rubicon. I could not pretend to have all the answers because people would have known that I was lying from the beginning. And so, almost as a survival mechanism, I had to be vulnerable early. As proud as I am, as confident in myself as I am, as capable as I often think I am in many things, I think one of my strongest qualities is that I'm vulnerable. And I'm willing to surround myself with people who are better than me in certain areas, I'm willing to sit at a table with my executive team and admit that I don't have the answer. And I'm also not afraid to tell people when I'm struggling with something. And I think when people see their leaders demonstrating that type of vulnerability, it makes them feel empowered because they feel as though they can step into that void. They can feel confident that they might have the right answer or that they can figure it out, that they can take point on a certain project because they're best suited for the job or that they themselves in that moment where they feel overwhelmed can come to me and acknowledge the same and we can work to get through it together. When I look at talking openly about my experience overseas and issues like having spoken to counselors at times throughout my post-war experience, I do feel as though I have this obligation to the veteran community to demonstrate that same level of vulnerability and humility that I do with my team at TR. I don't need to put up a facade for anyone. Take me as you will, right? I guess is my approach.
KH: I'm so glad you talk about it in the book. And I want to return to the book because everyone should read it. But there's this one passage that has really stuck with me. It's about your reaction to the loss of a good buddy in a firefight. And you were one of the people who helped pull him from a vehicle that was hit by an IED. And I'm not going to read the description of that but if it's okay, I'd like to read your reaction to it. Is that okay?
JW: Sure. Yeah.
KH: Talking about seeing your friend Howie. You wrote, "It was an image that would intrude upon my thoughts in subsequent years visiting at times that seemed natural, but more often in moments that made no sense like on a conference call or on the treadmill or during the birth of my daughter." And it's that last part that really got me because I've got my own image like that. Man, it's something that vets don't speak of openly very often, but I wanted to thank you for doing it.
JW: Yeah. I think sometimes those moments are so deeply personal. We sometimes carry them purposefully like this heavy burden, right? That only we can shoulder. We almost feel like it's our job to carry that image or that memory through life weighing us down. It's like our price to pay for having survived. And that's certainly at times how I felt I think often, though now I reframe that. And I look at how do I share that burden with other people? Earlier in this conversation, we talked about how do we fix this lack of concern by the American public that we're still at war two decades later. One of the things I've always said is that people can and should do and must do in times like Memorial Day or Veterans Day is ask to hear these stories. And they hesitate to ask veterans to hear their stories for usually one of two reasons. One... And it's natural to think this, that person thinks, "Oh, that person doesn't want to share that story with me because they're going to think that I could never understand." And I've been that vet at times where I’ve thought, "Oh, I don't want to share this memory of Howie because the person asking will never understand." But that's the wrong approach to take. The second reason people don't ask us is because they fear they're going to be uncomfortable with the story that they hear. And that's where now I just come to this conclusion of “tough shit”. It's your job to hear that story. It's your job to help me pass that burden from my shoulders and for you to shoulder some of it. And maybe if it makes you a little uncomfortable, then that's what's going to spark the conversation that's going to allow us to hold our country better accountable for how we deploy our men and women into these circumstances. Because again, if it's out of sight out of mind, then we failed as citizens in this republic to wield war effectively and appropriately as the tool that it is. For me, writing this book was how do I take these memories and put them out into the public sphere for somebody else to put on their shoulders and hopefully think twice about what we're doing as a country?
KH: I couldn't have said it better. I've always known you were the better man, Jake, but you just proved it. And for those still in doubt, I want to read your book dedication: "To my father, thank you for all the lessons. To my wife, thank you for taking a chance on me. And to my daughter, thank you for making it worth it." I choked up at that. That's beautiful. And contrasted with my book dedication, which was, "To my three beautiful children without whom this book would have been finished much, much sooner." I could have used your help. We end every episode of Burn the Boats by asking - and man, you've got a grab bag to reach into to choose from - what's the bravest decision you've ever been a part of?
JW: Wow. I mean, I think it's got to be...we were at the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti and it was that final moment, we can turn back now and we're not going to lose our life and maybe we can do some good work on this side of the border and still be proud of what we came down here to do or we can cross this border and there's untold danger and hazards on the other side. And we just clenched our jaw and crossed that border. And of course, that hearkens back to the organization's name, Team Rubicon, crossing the Rubicon, crossing that point of no return. I still remember that moment. I probably wasn't as vulnerable in that moment as I mentioned I like to be earlier, because I certainly was pants-shitting scared in that moment, but didn't let anybody know it. But man, I remember that being just one of the craziest moments of my life.
KH: Well, thanks Jake for sharing. It's been an honor having you.
JW: Always a pleasure, Ken.
KH: Thanks again to Jake Wood for joining me on Burn the Boats. Jake is the CEO of Team Rubicon and author of a new memoir, Once a Warrior - out earlier this month.
Next week on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Aida Salazar, award-winning author, activist, and artist, about writing difficult stories for children, raising a new generation of activists, and the intersections of art and activism.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.