As Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean on a collision course with his Miami neighborhood, Derek Auguste didn't hesitate. He and his platoon quickly pooled their military expertise to prepare. They spread the word via social media: If you need storm shutters installed or windows boarded up or anything else, we will make it happen.
"We just fanned out. You five go north, us five will go south," he remembers. "Finish one site, report back … it almost became like a military operation." Only it wasn't.
Auguste left the Army more than two years ago, excited about returning to college on the GI Bill. His friends, all volunteer members of a nonprofit called The Mission Continues, are veterans too. They rescue people and rebuild communities not because they've been ordered to, but because it's now their personal mission.
In those first months as a civilian "I really struggled," Auguste says. "I didn't realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in my military service." The sudden shift "was a big shock to the psyche."
While we may see someone who survived the sacrifices of military service as blessed to be safely home, the reality can be very different. Service members often describe the military as a close-knit family. For some, detaching can be acutely painful.
"You're in the military and you show up to a unit, you have friends immediately," Auguste says. "When you get back, there's nobody. You can go days without seeing anybody. That can be dangerous."
Founded in 2007, The Mission Continues pairs veterans hungering to serve with community organizations grateful for their expertise and effort. It's a simple equation: Veterans, many of whom are in college, get a living stipend, leadership training and mentoring and a powerful sense of purpose and connection. In exchange, these veterans tackle challenging community problems like hunger, homelessness and, most recently, hurricane relief.
In the days leading up to the disaster, Auguste and his Mission Continues platoon began fanning out to protect people in their Florida community. Marine Corps veteran LaShonda Johnson and her "veteran family" at The Mission Continues in Houston were already battling the impact of Hurricane Harvey.
You could expect, after being trapped with her three children in their flooded home during Harvey's onslaught and seeing that home destroyed, that Johnson might have taken a break during the storm's aftermath.
No way, she says: "I am a woman who keeps my word."
Six days after Harvey's destructive waters began receding, she spearheaded the rebuilding of a school complex already in need of refurbishing before the storm. "We ended up having a little over 200 volunteers," she says, including veterans who labored to repair damage, build picnic tables and refurbish an outdoor pavilion and basketball court. "We even had the children out there walking around picking up trash," she says. Her own kids have helped out with many projects for The Mission Continues, infusing her life and theirs with a sense of purpose that's been hugely beneficial.
And while they were still battling the effects of Hurricane Harvey, Auguste's platoon was busy doing the same kind of work in Hurricane Irma's wake. When they heard that a school for children with disabilities had its entrance blocked by massive trees, the group arrived wielding chain saws they'd purchased just prior to the storm. For hours on end, they tore the trees apart and removed them so the school could reopen that Monday morning.
Their focus was on the kids: "Getting them back into routines is really important," Auguste says, so his platoon made sure it happened. So many other veterans have done work in their communities and also improved their own health and happiness through The Mission Continues.
As grateful as they are for the emotional lift this work offers, it's likely their communities are even more grateful in return.