This Marine vet gets boots on the ground for disaster-hit communities

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When Marine Corps veteran Jon Connors hears about natural disasters and refugees, he’s immediately ready to get boots on the ground to help.

Connors is deputy director of operations at Team Rubicon, a global organization with nearly 150,000 volunteers founded by Jake Wood and William McNulty in 2010. These Marine Corps veterans were spurred into action after the devastating Haiti earthquake that year, and their grassroots organization has since gone on to serve communities impacted by disaster who are often underserved by traditional aid organizations.

Today, Team Rubicon is comprised of veterans, first responders and civilians. Jersey City, NJ, resident Connors leads, guides and supports the full-time staff and the volunteers.

“My daily work includes everything from supporting our volunteer leaders to general staff meetings at the national level,” he said. “I may be filing performance reviews one day and in the field behind a chainsaw the next.”

Connors also navigates daily challenges like Mother Nature’s unpredictability.

“You might have a dedicated, badass group of volunteer leaders who are operationally capable, but some of those people might not be available [in a crisis] because they, too, have jobs, families and lives, or maybe they were victims of the disaster,” he said. “You can train people, you can get them ready to deploy, but when the crisis happens, you have to play with the team that you have at that moment.”

Operating quickly is nothing new to the veteran, who served as captain and joint public affairs officer for Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona. After graduating from Villanova University in 1992, he spent time in the Middle East and North Africa from 1992 to 1996. Connors left the military that year, earning a master’s degree in media studies at the New School in 2001 before working in various roles in his field of study, but he felt a void.

Jon Connors.
Jon Connors.
Courtesy of Jon Connors

“I was looking for the things that I had left behind in the military,” said Connors, who chats with his fellow ex-Marines on a weekly basis. “I was still looking for a community. When you’re in the Marine Corps, your whole identity is being a Marine. Once you leave it and come back to the real world, you lose that.”

For years, Connors “was successfully bouncing around the Internet bubble of New York City,” but longed for “that desire to serve and do something other than just try to make money.” After volunteering for a variety of organizations, in 2013 he discovered Team Rubicon and immediately identified with their purpose.

“I’m eternally happy now,” he said. “My whole life is around helping people, whether it’s victims of disasters or team members looking to do more. It’s a great opportunity to fill that void when you take off the uniform.”

The disaster relief organization’s principles are synergistic with his background, which is: “Mission first. Just like the military, you have to accomplish the mission. Step into the arena. Don’t be afraid to be bold, take chances and lead. The next one is ‘change your socks.’ This is also something from the Marine Corps. It’s literal and metaphorical. If your socks are wet and muddy, your feet are going to get rotten. When we tell you to change your socks, go home, take off your work boots. Do wellness.”

Connors taps into the empathy that he acquired during his five years serving our country.

“Mission always came first. If you’re not taking care of your people, you’re not going to be able to accomplish your mission,” he said.

When a Marine who worked for him was informed a relative passed away, Connors made sure he went home to be with his family before he got deployed overseas. “It’s a day-to-day basis — being able to give your troops not only the physical support, but also the emotional and mental support so they could best accomplish their mission.”

Jon Connors, active duty in Africa (center).
Jon Connors, active duty in Africa (center).
Courtesy of Jon Connors

During disaster relief situations, he mentors Team Rubicon volunteers, known as “Greyshirts,” reminding them that the house they’re about to enter was destroyed overnight and the owner probably lost everything.

“Let’s be there for the person — if the person needs to stop and talk about what they went through, let’s do that,” Connors said. “We always have that lens of care while we’re doing the manual labor of helping them get back on their feet.”

Connors relies on discipline and time management skills acquired in the military to “police myself to ensure I’m going to have a full, productive work day. I think that prior service helped me prepare for setting really firm schedules to work from home successfully.”

He prides the organization on “having boots on the ground” within 24 to 48 hours of a crisis, like helping local flood victims in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. He also makes sure the Greyshirts always have a safe, clean place to stay overnight, like a church basement or cot in a gymnasium with access to donated food.

Recently, Connors focused on the Afghan resettlement operation. At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, near Trenton, NJ, Team Rubicon is helping 10,000 Afghans who are temporarily living on its military base.

“Plane load after plane load coming from Afghanistan — they had nothing other than the clothes on their back,” he said. “It’s such a meaningful mission, and for many at Team Rubicon, it’s a different way to help humanity. So many of our members served in Afghanistan and were so affected by Afghan families who welcomed them, or gave them tea. This is finally a way to give them some sort of closure, and help those communities resettle and get back on their feet.”

It’s all in a meaningful day’s work for Connors. “If I can positively impact 10 of our volunteers, that’s a great day. If I can positively impact an entire community, then that’s a terrific day, but it all starts with taking care of one person.”

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