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War veterans hit Sandy's front lines for rescues, cleanup

Courtesy Mike Lee

Team Rubicon's "DC Response Team" clears a tree in the Capitol Hill nieghborhood. Left to right: Lourdes Tiglao, Neil Landsberg, Kiara Baginski, Dan Pick.

Up to his armpits in flood water, flanked by darkened buildings and submerged vehicles, Iraq veteran Peter Meijer felt oddly at home Monday night as he trudged through the streets of Brooklyn at the height of Sandy's fury: "The right place at the right time with the right mission."

With a fellow veteran at his side, Meijer had driven a van from a Brooklyn high school-turned-evacuation shelter to the Gerritsen Beach neighborhood, stopping only when the van's tires met the storm surge. From there, the pair went on foot. With 911 phone lines down, the Army reservist was trying to reach and rescue a man who had climbed into his attic with his dog to escape the rising tide. Back at the shelter, the man's wife — who had been on the phone with him — pleaded Meijer to try to save him.

A team of volunteers who were also hit hard by the storm, put their needs aside to help neighbors with first aid and food. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

"She said the water was up to his knees, then it was up to his waist. Nobody could reach the police. We were 15 minutes away. I peer-pressured my partner, Marvin Avilez, into going out there," said Meijer, 24, who served in Iraq during 2010 and 2011. "When the road ended, we hopped out. On the way, we found a dude wading in the water, pulling a row boat. He was a former Marine recon guy, going house to house to rescue folks.

"It was during the brunt of the storm. There were eerie moments when the wind was blowing 70 miles per hour, then where it went down to nothing, then back to 70. Water up to my chest. Cars under water. It was like 'End of Days' stuff out there." 

Meijer is one of 50 veterans dispatched this week into storm-battered areas from Team Rubicon — a nonprofit, 4,000-member, all-volunteer army composed almost entirely of former military members who served after 9/11, many of them in combat. They typically join forces with federal and local authorities to help during natural catastrophes such as the April 2011 outbreak of tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that killed more than 340 people. 

The multiple ways in which the military is helping New Jersey and New York recover from Hurricane Sandy. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Loosely formed in 2010 to aid earthquake victims in Haiti, Team Rubicon quickly melded into a tightly run disaster-relief machine with a military style and sharp focus, said Matt Pelak, the organization's director of strategic partnerships. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the U.S. Army. 

"In Haiti, they realized they were onto something," said Pelak, now a full-time firefighter and paramedic in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "They were realizing: We’re home from war and we have these skills and we’re good in that environment.  

David Friedman / NBC News

Superstorm Sandy made landfall Monday evening on a destructive and deadly path across the Northeast.

"In Tuscaloosa, a ton more veterans showed up than we expected. At end of day, we got around the campfire and talked about our deployment experiences. We realized we're not just helping other Americans, we're also helping each other, giving each other self confidence, giving direction."

In the wake of the superstorm, people are banding together across New York City and New Jersey, offering power, food and even Halloween fun to their neighbors who have been devastated by wind and floods. NBC's Jenna Bush Hager reports.

Team Rubicon has engaged in roughly 50 more missions since the tornadoes. The group says it has "a good relationship" with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and with local authorities, emphasizing that it "doesn't freelance." 

"We have our little niche and that's what we stick to," Pelak said. "We utilize military-style plans and military-style leaderships to be more effective with less overhead and less bureaucracy, to be fast. Our teams are good at improvising and adapting. That’s what veterans do best."

Team Rubicon had a pre-existing relationship with the New York City Office of Emergency Management, which asked the veterans to help staff the city's command center and to problem-solve issues at some rescue shelters: lack of food, no power, people not getting along, Pelak said. Team Rubicon members arrived from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and Connecticut to help storm victims access their homes, help towns do damage assessment, and help clear debris from roadways and yards — in New York, Washington, D.C., and other eastern towns. 

NBC's Katy Tur reports from Hoboken, N.J., where water is covering much of the city.

Meijer, who lives in Manhattan, joined his Team Rubicon colleagues on Saturday in New York. By Wednesday, he estimates that he'd since had about eight total hours of sleep. 

While helping smooth out operations at a Brooklyn shelter, Meijer met the frantic woman who told him about her trapped husband — a man in his 60s who has hip trouble. 

"The whole reason you get involved in an organization like this is to not sit on the sidelines," Meijer said. 

Drenched and peering through the darkness, they eventually found the couple's house in Brooklyn.

Once inside, they saw that the flowing water already had topped the kitchen chairs. The man was indeed tucked into a crawlspace but debris from the storm surge was blocking the attic door. The veterans yanked the door open and freed the man and his dog. They eventually put him into the Marine's row boat and pulled him back to drier streets where he stepped into the van. 

"We were able to bring him to the hurricane shelter to be with his wife and puppy," Meijer said. "It was cute." 

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