In Tornado-Ravaged Illinois ‘War Zone,’ Veterans Find A Mission

· Nov. 21, 2013, 11:41 am

Lots of people in and around Washington, Ill., are referring to the areas devastated by Sunday’s tornado as looking like a war zone.

David Casler is among them.

“Right here, right now, if you look around this street, this is a war zone, only no one’s shooting at us,” he says.

Casler knows the difference. He served as a Marine in Iraq in 2004 and was subsequently hit by a roadside bomb while working there as a security contractor, suffering a brain injury.

Now, he’s a volunteer with Team Rubicon, a nonprofit service organization that sends veterans into disaster areas to help out.

Over the next three weeks, he and about 50 other vets will tear down houses that may be still standing but have been declared a total loss by insurance companies, removing the rubble to the curb and in the process saving homeowners, on average, about $10,000 each.

“Don’t pay anyone for what we can do for free,” Casler tells Mary Arnold, whose duplex home was wrecked by the storm.

Ready To Help

Casler is part of a wave of what might be called second responders — the army of trained volunteers who arrive soon after major disasters strike.

Casler walks around Washington with a camera and a smartphone loaded with custom software that allows him and the other members of his crew to upload data, helping set priorities for demolition. (He still takes down residents’ information on a pile of sticky notes, though.)

“One of the reasons they allow us in first is that a lot of the cities don’t have 100 people to send out to do [property] assessments,” he says. “I can give you in real time what’s going on, on the ground.”

If Casler’s group is providing a welcome service, it’s certainly not alone. Entire blocks of the Devonshire Estates subdivision have been reduced to rubble, yet it’s become a hive of activity.

A group of 15 people organized by Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief agency headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham, is clearing debris from a collapsed home on Windsor Way.

Several of them use rakes to collect pink insulation fibers that have blown all over the lawn.

“We have experienced teams that come in and get organized,” says Paul Spinka, who drove down from the Chicago area. “Then we look for local volunteers.”

Planning To Rebuild

After a disaster, everyone wants to help. With nowhere left to store the cases of water and rolls of paper towels and bags of children’s clothing that keep coming in, churches and other shelters in the Washington area are turning away donations.

“We’re Midwesterners,” says Phil Bolam, accepting a couple of slices of pizza offered by a teacher from the neighboring middle school who walks by, pushing a waiter’s cart. “We band together in tragedy, and people are wonderful.”

His home of 20 years on Westminster Drive is gone, nothing but broken wood left in its place. He and his wife, Ella, were trying to salvage what they could before the rain started up on Wednesday afternoon. He’s staying in a hotel and has no storage.

“We’re going to rebuild, right here,” Phil Bolam says. “We hope some of our neighbors do, too.”

Finding housing is going to be difficult. About 1,200 families have been displaced. People are now buying whatever area houses are available, “almost without looking at them,” says Carol Wenger, a real estate agent.

More housing is available in neighboring communities such as Peoria, but families who have lost their homes and pets don’t want to have to pull their kids out of the local schools on top of all that, Wenger says.

They may have few options.

“You probably won’t see a lot of construction,” says Mark Swisher, co-owner of an insurance agency on North Main Street. “You’ll see some rebuilding, but the construction won’t start until the spring.”

Getting Back By Giving

Talking to homeowners who have lost everything can be difficult, says Casler, but it’s when their houses actually get torn down that the tears will really start flowing.

“We’re here to give them some semblance of normality,” Casler says. “After they accept it, we’ll all hug and cry.”

Casler is on his “fourth or fifth” disaster, following Sandy last year and the Moore, Okla., tornado in May. He’s part of a team that was gearing up to go to the Philippines to help out with typhoon cleanup. Instead, they headed for central Illinois with just a few hours’ notice.

“We have a lot of vets, some of them have PTSD, and vets have so much suicide,” he says. “It’s healing to give back.”

Casler says he gets that kind of emotional satisfaction from his day job, working with the elderly at care centers.

“A lot of guys don’t have that,” he says. “They’re desperate for something to hold onto.”

After Casler explains what Team Rubicon is offering to do for Mary Arnold, her daughter-in-law bursts into tears and reaches out to embrace Casler in a hug.

“We didn’t know you existed, and thank God you do,” says Jan Arnold. “You’re the ones who keep us safe, and then you do all this.”

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit

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