William McNulty addresses Class of 2017

William McNulty, a U.S. Marine and co-founder of the non-profit organization Team Rubicon, was awarded an honorary degree at the 145th Commencement of the University of Kansas on May 14, 2017.

Chancellor Gray-Little, Regent Newton, members of the platform party, fellow alumni, professors and parents, and the Class of 2017 ... Thank you for this tremendous honor!

I’m here because I co-founded Team Rubicon, an international charity that gives veterans new purpose as first responders after natural disasters. But what I want to share is the story of my friend, Clay Hunt, a fellow Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I first met Clay in Haiti in January 2010 after Port-au-Prince was leveled by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake. Our initial team was in the Port-au-Prince General Hospital assisting doctors with amputations when I received an email from our operations chief: "Clay is on his way to Haiti." After discussing our concerns as a team, we relayed a message back: "Tell that SOB he needs to coordinate his movement, we can't be responsible for him otherwise."

"He's already on a plane to the Dominican Republic, no phone," our operations chief wrote back.

My cofounder looked at me deadpan when I gave him the news. Clay was on his own, and we were in the middle of the greatest humanitarian disaster of our lives, with over a quarter-million dead and many more injured.

The following morning at our base of operations just north of the airfield, we woke to a 6.1 magnitude aftershock. I remember running out of our tents, yelling evacuation orders to those inside an already damaged building. We rushed back to the General Hospital where we found all the patients outside in the courtyard. Ambulatory patients had evacuated the non-ambulatory for fear the hospital would collapse. The firefighters among us inspected the hospital for structural integrity, cleared it for reentry, and we began the arduous task of moving patients back inside. At some point in this madness, Clay Hunt arrived in a taxi. 

He didn’t speak Creole. He didn’t know exactly where we were. He’d simply read online that Team Rubicon was at some hospital in Port-au-Prince. The first time I met him, he helped me carry a patient lying in a hospital bed across the courtyard. No words were exchanged except, "Ready, 1, 2, 3, lift. ..."

That night, while we tried to kill a bottle of Jose Cuervo Especial that our ER doctor packed in, Clay told us the story of his journey. He bought a one-way ticket from California to the Dominican Republic. After landing, he befriended two guys with a small plane. They liked him and agreed to fly him to Port-au-Prince. Upon landing in the capital, in the aftermath of the country’s most horrific natural disaster, he walked out of the airport and somehow hailed a taxi. He then managed to convey to the driver that he needed to get to a hospital.

I'm not sure how many hospitals Clay hit before finding us, but I do remember thinking, "This guy is a legend."

In Iraq, troops often reminded each other to “embrace the suck.” It meant that getting through a miserable situation required acceptance and a dedication to power through it. When Clay heard that his buddies were slogging through the wreckage of Port-au-Prince, he felt a calling to join because, to him, getting through suckage was always a team effort. He told us that he couldn’t let his fellow Marines down by not serving alongside them.

Haiti made us realize that veterans are damned good at disaster response. Teamwork, decisive leadership, risk mitigation, emergency medicine are all skills paramount to an effective response, and veterans have earned these skills in some of the most dangerous and challenging environments in the world. Quite frankly, Port-au-Prince looked just like Fallujah. The sights, smells, and sounds of disaster zones are eerily similar to war zones. However this time, we showed up to serve with gauze and good will, rather than guns and grenades.

But Clay made us realize that our model presented a far more important opportunity: to restore the purpose, community, and identity that imbued us when we wore the military uniform. Team Rubicon is what it is today because of Clay. 

After leaving the military, many of us struggle profoundly to reconcile the traumas of war with the task of resuming “normalcy” as civilians. 

Fourteen months after we left Haiti, we received a devastating call: Clay had lost his battle with PTSD and committed suicide. His death brought to life the ugly reality that, in this country alone, 22 military veterans commit suicide every day. Team Rubicon was still in its infancy, but the loss of Clay was the catalyst for shifting our mission focus to not only healing the disaster victim, but the veteran as well. 

It is this dual mission that makes Team Rubicon so important. 

Looking back on our first deployment, we could see that as we began to pick up small pieces of Haiti, we were actually picking up lost pieces of ourselves. Haiti rejuvenated the core parts of who we are as veterans: a community dedicated to a cause larger than self. Team Rubicon has since resonated with tens of thousands of veterans around the world, who despite differences in language and culture, now stand ready to serve in times of disaster. Clay’s legacy was to remind us that friends never let friends deal with terrible things alone. 

The biggest loss for Team Rubicon and, frankly, anyone who knew Clay is that you didn’t get to meet him. If you had met him, you would have felt the strength and contagiousness of his integrity, loyalty, and genuine passion for service. While I can’t undo his loss, I am committed to making his legacy a lasting one.

Speaking with you here today is an opportunity for us all to reflect upon what matters most: staying true to ourselves and the people we love. As you graduate and move on to the next stages of your lives, you will face challenges and adversity. There will be times in which you might feel alone, or not like yourselves. And in those times, I encourage all of you to remember these lessons we took from Haiti and from Clay about why “embracing the suck” is something people must do together.

Communities may seem to evolve and drift apart with time, but when our worlds get shaken and when we are forced to examine the foundations of who we are, we will always see the communities that raised us first. Nothing can break the camaraderie that arises from shared misery, and camaraderie is what will see you through.

So show up for one another. Find the purpose that you would navigate an earthquake for. And do not be afraid to dive head first into the suck.

Thanks you, and congratulations!

Alumni Association