"I knew I'd come out of retirement at some point ..."
With those words, Jake Wood began a recent blog post, explaining his latest mission to Haiti to his many faithful followers on the Internet.
Wood is a former University of Wisconsin football player who enlisted in the Marines after graduating from college in 2004. His tour of duty complete, Wood sprang back into action after Tuesday's devastating earthquake in Haiti.
In a matter of 96 hours, Wood put together his own relief team, then hopped on a plane on Saturday to go do what he can to help the victims.
"It's beyond words, really," Wood said. "The outpouring of help we've received already from people has been more than I ever imagined. I started two or three days ago, hoping to raise $500 and just cover my own plane ticket. If I got one person to come along with me, I was going to be excited.
"Suddenly, I'm a team leader for an advance team. We've got a medical team that's trying to meet us down there with five doctors, nurses and medics. It started snowballing so quickly."
Anybody who knows Wood, who is from Bettendorf, Iowa, isn't surprised by his quick response. Neither are those who have never met the man, but have followed his popular blog at badgerjake.blogspot.com
While watching the television coverage of the disaster, Wood knew instantly he had to do something and it had to be done quickly. Prior to a four-year stint in the Marines, which included combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he went with a high school friend to help Hurricane Katrina victims.
"I knew what the scale of devastation was going to be," he said. "I coupled that with knowing Haiti is such a poor country and knowing what their infrastructure must be like, having been to a place like Afghanistan. I just thought, ‘This is going to be Katrina on a magnitude that's not even comparable.'
"My first reaction was, ‘Jake, you're not in the Marines any more, but you have a special set of skills. You would be ashamed of yourself if you didn't try to use them to help people.' "
Forming a team
The first two people Wood called were fellow Marine snipers that served with him in Afghanistan. Both wanted to help, but neither had a current passport.
The third person he called was Jeffrey Lang, a former Badgers teammate who is a fireman for the Milwaukee Fire Department. Also joining them will be another Milwaukee firefighter, Craig Parello.
After posting his plans on Facebook, Wood heard from Bill McNulty, another former Marine, whom Wood knew through his blog. McNulty runs his own intelligence contracting company and has connections in Washington, D.C.
"Three days later, we've got $20,000 in donations, free medical supplies pouring in and people volunteering to help from all over the country," Wood said on Saturday morning, before boarding a flight to the Dominican Republic.
They also lined up a college student, Corinne Joachim-Sanon, who is from Haiti, to serve as a guide. Joachim-Sanon had been studying abroad at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. She has learned that her home in Haiti was destroyed by the quake.
Wood's group also has a contact with a Jesuit refugee mission, which has basically collapsed. The mission will serve as their base of operations.
"We're about as trained as you're going to get from any international relief agency," Wood said. "I think we provide a nimble response. We're small enough, we can get in there with a large amount of supplies."
Wood checked two bags, carrying 130 pounds of gear he was able to purchase with donations through Facebook and a PayPal link on his website. (He noted on his blog late Saturday morning that American Airlines assessed the team with overweight baggage fees.)
"Our mission right now is to make this an easier time for the people of Haiti, because right now, they're struggling," Wood said. "They need medicine, they need food, they need water. We have $1,000 worth of water sanitation devices we're bringing down there. We're going to teach them how to use them.
"That's critical for their survival. They're going on day four or five right now, without clean water. That's something we can really help with."
Wood knows the U.S. government or Red Cross probably would not be supportive of his mission. But he won't let that deter him. He doesn't minimize the importance of large relief agencies, but they move slowly. Media reports indicated aid has been slow to reach people in need.
"I don't want to take anything away from them. They are the pros," Wood said. "But they are what they are, slow moving and they're still developing their plan.
"We have the ability to tap into a part of Port-au-Prince maybe they haven't been to, that from our Jesuit contact on the ground, hasn't seen any relief workers. They're running low on food. They need medicine. We're going to get it to them. If someone wants to frown upon that effort, that's their problem."
Preparing for 'chaos'
Wood has no delusions about the enormity of the task he is undertaking. He also has a pretty good idea of what awaits him in Haiti.
"I think the pictures speak for themselves," he said. "We fully expect it to be chaos, death and destruction."
Yet, he believes in the members of his team and the specialized skills they all have acquired.
"Between my combat deployments and the two firefighters we have going down, there's been plenty of bad scenarios and death and traumatic situations that we've all encountered," Wood said.
Beyond their training, Wood is encouraged by his team members' strong desire to help.
"I couldn't have hand-picked a better group of guys," Wood said. "On top of all of these skills we all have, the fact they instantly said yes says a lot about their character and their willingness to do it. That's more important than any of their skills.
"It's going to be really hard. We're not going to have a lot of food. We're not going to have a lot of water. We need guys that are willing to endure that kind of discomfort because they know it's for the greater good. These are the four guys that can do it."
Wood is not sure how long his mission will last. "Unfortunately, it comes down to a money issue," he said. "We can't stay down there longer than our supplies last."
After leaving the Marines, Woods was living in California, having applied to four graduate business schools and waiting to see where life would take him next. Packing his bag for the trip, he felt the same mixture of nerves, excitement and fear he felt before a mission in the Marines.
"I've been searching for something to identify with since I left the military," he said. "That has been the hardest part of the transition, no longer being able to call myself a Marine.
"I'm not trying to call myself anything with this, but it's something I'm working hard for, something I know is going to make a difference. It's not me floundering around in California, looking for something to do. It's doing something that's worthwhile. I needed something like that."