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Veterans remember their time in disaster relief operations

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's time now for StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative, sharing the stories of service members and their families. Leaving the military can be a challenge for veterans, who often feel isolated and adrift. One group offers them a chance to find meaning again after military service and to put their skills into action. Team Rubicon deploys a specially trained team of veterans who go into the fray when natural disasters strike. One of these veterans is Lieutenant Commander Michael Davidson. After 23 years in the Navy, he struggled when he returned to civilian life. He came to StoryCorps with fellow Navy veteran Windy Barton, a former hull maintenance technician fireman, and recalled the person who first inspired his deep sense of duty.

WINDY BARTON: Can you tell me about your grandfather?

MICHAEL DAVIDSON: Yeah. I called him Peepaw (ph) - World War II veteran. He was why I joined the Navy. He taught me how to be vulnerable. He was the first man I ever saw cry and made it OK.

BARTON: What was Peepaw's nickname for you?

DAVIDSON: Nub, Nubbin, Nubs. And when I joined the Navy and got stationed on my first submarine, I was going down the ladder, and the topside watch looked at me and said, get hot, NUB. And I'm like, why would he call me Nub? I asked him. I was like, did my grandfather call the boat? And he's like, why would you ask me that?

BARTON: (Laughter).

DAVIDSON: I'm like, well, because only my grandfather calls me Nub. And he started to laugh. And he's just like, well, that's a Navy acronym for nonusable body.

BARTON: (Laughter).

DAVIDSON: I was devastated. I went and got a roll of quarters at the bowling alley, and I called my grandfather, told him I had made it to the boat and checked in, and that I also knew what NUB meant. I'm like, you've been calling me a nonusable body my entire life?

BARTON: (Laughter).

DAVIDSON: And he said, yeah, you kind of have been. Go do something with it. And I think I have and continue to do so.

BARTON: I would agree with that. Definitely. You've changed a lot of lives.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, thank you - mine included. You know, I remember when I'd just gotten out of the Navy, and I had lost that community and my identity. And so I had, like, zero purpose. And you know, at the time, like, I was having suicidal ideation. So to go out there and help people, it got me to looking forward instead of looking back.

BARTON: Yeah, definitely. You know, after the Navy, I was able to be a mom, be a part of every little thing that my children have done, but I missed firefighting and emergency response stuff. It just felt like I had let myself wither. And so I kind of jumped feet first.

And my strongest memory on deployments was when we were in Louisiana because there was a flood in Baton Rouge. I happened to knock on a door. The homeowner answered, and she was angry. We were three weeks post-disaster, and nobody had shown up yet. Their whole house was still covered in water. And her son's autistic.

Well, the next day, we had two straight (ph) teams out there, and they were helping that lady. And she was crying. And I remember the relief 'cause she wanted to be in her home. And it goes back to immediate impact. When I go on a disaster, I can pack my entire bag in less than 20 minutes and be out the door. You need boots. You need three pairs of pants. You need 18 pairs of socks.

DAVIDSON: Yeah.

BARTON: And a lot of veterans have seen the bad side of a non-natural disaster with war. And I think being able to help something go back together is really the call to their hearts.

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I wish I would have had this when I transitioned out.

BARTON: I'll agree with that.

DAVIDSON: And, you know, you've taught me that I've still got a lot in the tank in terms of belief of people 'cause you're a damn good shipmate, and I didn't know how much I missed that.

BARTON: I appreciate that a lot.

DAVIDSON: You bet.

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SIMON: Michael Davidson and Windy Barton in Arlington, Texas. And the two continue to volunteer with Team Rubicon. Their conversation is archived at the U.S. Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.