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May 21, 2019 1:20 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Veterans Clear Out Invasives At Montauk County Park

Maureen Rutkowski, Team Rubicon's New York State Administrator cutting up invasive roots and plants.   ELIZABETH VESPE
May 21, 2019 3:44 PM

More than a dozen Team Rubicon members were deep in the trails of Montauk County Park on a warm Saturday afternoon, chopping and clearing invasive plant species that over the years have started to overgrow, cover, and in some cases kill native flora and fauna.

Team Rubicon is an international disaster response nonprofit founded by two U.S. Marines, William McNulty and Jacob Wood, in 2010. Its mission is to unite the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders so that the veterans can provide relief to communities in need. To date, the organization has deployed thousands of volunteers across the United States and around the world to provide disaster relief.

Lawrence Ksiez, the local district field operations coordinator, was wearing a neon yellow hardhat and orange chainsaw-protective pants while he attacked vines that seemed to be strangling a tree out in Montauk on Saturday. He hauled a number of bundles of plant debris to a truck before stopping and taking a sip from his water bottle.

“When I got out of the service, I was on autopilot,” he explained about how it felt to leave Norfolk, Virginia, after a little more than three years in the U.S. Navy, serving aboard the USS Eisenhower. He began volunteering with New York Cares, and he was “thrust into service as a team leader during Superstorm Sandy,” he said, which is how he met people from Team Rubicon who are also veterans.

Mr. Ksiez joined Team Rubicon in 2013 and has since been deployed to over a dozen disasters. He instructs other members in chainsaw use and safety protocols.

Montauk County Park consists of 1,157 acres, and on Saturday the volunteers split into four groups as they searched the trails around Big Reed Pond and the historic Third House.

Matthew Watson of Indianapolis, who was in the same group as Mr. Ksiez, served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 12 years before becoming an officer in the U.S. Army. He was visiting New York last week and decided to join his fellow Team Rubicon members in the cleanup.

“After I left the Army, it was tough finding something that I could relate to,” he said while taking his hard hat off for a quick break and a sip of water. Since joining the team, he’s been deployed to 24 disasters in eight years.

Smaller-scale training projects help the members of Team Rubicon strengthen their chainsaw techniques, among other skills needed for disaster relief.

For that reason, Maureen Rutkowski, a Montauk resident and Team Rubicon’s New York State administrator, and Jessica James of the Third House Nature Center, a local environmental education organization, brainstormed a local Team Rubicon training weekend that would at the same time benefit Montauk’s parklands.

Recently, Team Rubicon‘s members have aided communities in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida following devastating hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding. Volunteers assist with clearing debris, providing basic construction, and getting communities back on their feet.

Ms. Rutkowski explained that the veterans are uniquely qualified to offer disaster relief and are used to working in uncomfortable and stressful environments. When not providing aid to storm-ravaged neighborhoods, Team Rubicon members spend time honing their skills, she said.

Ms. James explained that there are vast swaths of public lands where native trees are being “choked out by aggressive invasive species” such as autumn olive, Japanese honeysuckle shrubs, and bittersweet vine. Two botanists from the Third House Nature Center, Vicki Bustamante and Matt Stedman, and other THNC volunteers, have spent the winter and spring tagging invasive plants for removal on the walking trails.

Earlier this spring, County Legislator Bridget Fleming joined in a three-hour park walk-through of the park led by THNC president Ed Johann and Mr. Ksiez.

“Montauk County Park is home to an astounding array of magnificent old-growth trees and precious native shrubs, ferns, wildflowers and wildlife species,” Ms. Fleming said after the tour. “The control of invasive plant species is a necessary maintenance that will allow access to these precious natural resources.”

Eric Larson, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran from Rhode Island who ran the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue squad on Block Island, joined the Rubicon team in 2015. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, he searched the trail for bright orange markers noting which plants were invasive and needed to be removed. Once the plants were found, a team of three or four people worked to chain-saw and clear the debris onto the truck.

“I wanted to continue serving,” Mr. Larson said of why he joined Team Rubicon. He had retired from the Coast Guard after being injured while rescuing people from a capsized boat off Point Judith, Rhode Island. “I got everyone home that night … That was my last hoorah,” he said.

Mr. Larson, who still wanted to help people, learned about Team Rubicon through his involvement with the Wounded Warriors veterans service organization.

“I thought, ‘This is exactly what I’ve been looking for,’” he said of Team Rubicon, adding that he has helped after such disasters as tornadoes in Massachusetts, fires in California, and hurricanes in Florida, to name a few.

“We don’t want people picking up a saw for the first time when they go out on deployment,” he said of the advantage of training operations such as the one at Montauk County Park. “It’s actually an awesome opportunity for people to learn how to cut so when they go to a disaster, they’re not like a deer in headlights.”

Mr. Larson said joining the team has given him a sense of purpose again.

“All we want is a hug and a handshake, that’s our payment. It recharges your soul,” Mr. Larson said while setting his chainsaw in the bed of his truck. “We’re all the same go-getters that charge into the storm.”

George Baez of Queens had just finished packing away his equipment onto a big, red Team Rubicon trailer. Mr. Baez served in the Navy, and was deployed in submarines.

“Joining the Navy turned out to be the best decision I made in my life,” he said after finishing work for the day at 4 p.m. “When you go back home, you’re itching to help again.”

Mr. Baez joined Team Rubicon in February 2018. On Saturday, May 25, he is heading to Nebraska to help clean debris from a large storm that hit the middle of the country a few weeks ago.

“We all know how to step up,” he said on Saturday. “Everyone is willing to roll up their sleeves and do whatever needs to be done. These are a bunch of do-ers.”

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Jus another reason to love our Military Veterans and first responders! THANK YOU Team Rubicon!

Hope you all bathed in some Tick Guard before hitting those trails
By toes in the water (844), southampton on May 23, 19 7:14 AM