Repaying a debt of honor
Rhinelander veteran helps Afghans at Fort McCoy
By Eileen Persike
Serving as a public affairs specialist in the Army for more than two decades, including a couple tours of duty, Dave Melancon had many opportunities to work beside citizens of Afghanistan. Some were engineers who worked with the Army Corps of Engineers; others performed maintenance and other jobs on the Kandahar Airfield.
Now retired, he is anxious to return the favor.
“When people ask why, I tell them it is to repay a debt of honor to those people who helped us,” Melancon said. “They laid it on the line to help us.”
A Rhinelander resident, Melancon is a volunteer with Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster response organization. He returned recently from a week in Fort McCoy, where Team Rubicon was asked to support the management of donated goods, setting up logistics at each donation point for collections and distribution. The group deploys all over the world, but mostly in the United States, and mostly for natural disasters.
“This is the first operation of this type – resettling refugees – that Team Rubicon has ever been involved with,” Melancon said. “They’ve helped disaster survivors before, but it was ‘traditional.’ Everybody knows a flood, everybody knows a hurricane, knows what jobs to do. This was a new operation. It was pretty cool, people were learning as we were going.”
Team Rubicon was founded following the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and has grown from eight members to almost 150,000 volunteers. “Greyshirts,” as they are called, are made up of veterans, first responders and trained civilians. Melancon first learned of the organization when he was taking emergency management classes at UW-Green Bay on weekends, while he worked for the U.S. Forest Service several years ago. His initial duty on this deployment was to open and unpack boxes of donations. By the next day he was asked to take over as incident commander.
“My role as incident commander was to build relationships and get the stuff from the warehouse at the National Guard Armory in Sparta on to Fort McCoy for distribution to the Afghans.”
Semi trucks loaded with boxes of clothing and supplies donated from across the region filled the warehouse, including culturally-appropriate clothing, Qurans, burkas and scarves brought via an 18-wheeler from the Muslim Society of the Midwest. When donations come in, Team Rubicon volunteers unload and start the sorting process. Donations are sorted by women’s, men’s and children’s, and then into sizes. Finally, everything is packaged into corresponding bags to be driven to Fort McCoy and handed out to Afghan evacuees.
Though perhaps appearing overwhelming to the civilian eye, Melancon took it in stride.
“One of the phrases from the Civil War was, when a soldier first went into battle, it’s called ‘seeing the elephant,’” Melancon explained. “I told my guys at one of the after-action meetings, ‘hey, we saw the elephant, but we took that elephant apart and solved the problem that way.’”
Though admitting his “brain was fried” by the end of his week, Melancon said he found a home with Team Rubicon after this op – his first deployment with the organization. And, he has already reapplied to return to Fort McCoy to continue his mission of repayment to the Afghan people.
Want to help?
Many of the Afghanistan evacuees arrived in the U.S. with only the clothes on their backs. Anyone wishing to donate new and unopened items can do the following:
To donate cash:
• Text Evacuee to 24365
• Mail a check to Salvation Army of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Divisional Headqtrs, 11315 W. Watertown Plank Rd. Wauwatosa, WI 53226. Write “Afghan Refugees on the memo line.