Meet the Storyteller Behind Team Rubicon

Volunteer photographer Jonathen Davis on his time as a Combat Cameraman in the Navy, the value of partnership, and his work with Team Rubicon
November 10, 2019Words by Miranda SmithPhotos by Josh Perez and Jonathen Davis

Every day natural disasters big and small devastate families and communities worldwide. The good news? There are almost 20 million veterans in the US whose military training can translate into disaster relief, and Team Rubicon is giving them an outlet to help. Since 2010, the 501(c)3 nonprofit has mobilized volunteer veterans on more than 400 disaster-response missions. That’s why this Veterans Day (and the week that follows), we’re donating 100% of our profits from our Team Rubicon shop to the organization. 

One of the great benefits of partnering with Team Rubicon? (Other than supporting such an incredible mission, of course.) We got to meet Jonathen Davis, who has been volunteering with them for nearly eight years. After serving first as a Mass Communications Specialist and later as a Combat Cameraman in the Navy from 2005 to 2011, Jonathen joined Team Rubicon in 2012 and has volunteered for both preventative and disaster-relief missions all over the world—from Texas to Nepal. As a volunteer photographer, Jonathen’s job is to tell Team Rubicon’s story. Now, he’s telling his. 

Jonathen Davis

Jonathen Davis

How did you get involved with Team Rubicon?

In 2011, I got out of the Navy—my last deployment. And I was in this mode, this high-operation tempo, where I needed to go and do something or I was going to fall into a depression. My wife saw that I needed a new outlet to utilize my talents, so she showed me a Ted Talk about Team Rubicon. I watched it and saw the stories about what they were doing in Haiti in 2010 and 2011. And I was like, this is for me. Veterans going out to help communities in need—that's exactly what I need in my life at this time. So in 2012, I signed up, and they reached out to me asking if I can help out as a volunteer photographer—which is exactly what I was doing in the Navy.

So as a combat cameraman for the military and as a photographer for Team Rubicon, you’re capturing these missions. What’s the significance of doing that?

We need to capture what we do out in the field because if you don’t see what we’re doing in these homes and these communities, it’s not going to feel important to you. I think the visual proof motivates potential volunteers to come out and help. And it also shows our donors and our partners where their money is going when they donate to our cause.

Jonathen Davis

Jonathen Davis

You both capture and participate in these Team Rubicon missions, right? Can you tell us a little bit about whether stepping in and getting your hands dirty affects how you tell those stories?

When I’m out on the front lines, I can get out there and help my teammates with whatever tasks they’re responsible for. A lot of the work that we do is mucking out, meaning we do debris removal. We remove drywall and wet carpet and a lot of stuff that gets nasty from a natural disaster. 

Because I’m out there getting my hands dirty, I’m better able to predict the moments that I’m out there to capture.

But I’m also watching what my teammates are doing, and then I can start anticipating what their next moves are going to be. Because I’m out there getting my hands dirty, I’m better able to predict the moments that I’m out there to capture. And when the moment comes, I’ll put down the hammer or the drywall that’s in my hand, switch to my camera, and get ready for the shot. Wait for the moment—and then capture it.

Jonathen's work from Nepal

What’s been the most memorable shot you’ve taken during your time with Team Rubicon?

In 2015, a small team of Team Rubicon Greyshirts went to Nepal after the first earthquake, I think it was a 7.1 or 7.2 earthquake. We were roving around and helping provide medical care and eventually reached a town called Shermathang, which is about 8,000 feet in elevation in the Himalayas. The village welcomed us with open arms, so we got to be very familiar with the community, and we learned that a lot of families lost a lot of people during the first earthquake. 

We’d brought a drone with us to do some aerial reconnaissance—this was in 2015 when drones were pretty new to society in general—and we started getting a crowd of children coming to see what we were doing. These recently orphaned kids were so interested to see something new and different. And it was then that I captured this moment that I will never be able to replicate any time of my life. You see the smiling faces of these children looking at our volunteers after going through such a devastating point in their lives. It was incredible to have our presence there uplift their spirits and to be able to capture that. 

Jonathen's work from Nepal

Team Rubicon in Nepal

What keeps you volunteering for these missions?

So the reason I keep coming back is twofold.

I’m there because it’s all about neighbors helping neighbors.

One: When I meet with these communities and homeowners who have had the devastating loss either of their homes or loved ones, I hope that if I was in their shoes, I would be able to receive some kind of help and hope from others. I’m there because it’s all about neighbors helping neighbors. If we can help a homeowner or help a community, it influences them to help others later. 

Two: I come back because of my fellow Greyshirts—the volunteers I work with during these times of a disaster. For them to come out here on their own personal time—taking vacation and being away from their families to come out and help communities—that motivates me. These people make me better. I feel good about myself because I work with them. And they’re also there to listen to me, and I’m able to listen to them. We’re a family when we’re together, and I think that’s important.

Team Rubicon

What makes your relationships with your team members so valuable to you?

Team Rubicon has been a really important support system for helping me work through some of the things we’ve experienced on the job and in the military together. I’ve had two experiences in particular that have really stayed with me: one in Nepal with Team Rubicon and one in Colombia when I was a combat cameraman for the Navy.

Team Rubicon
Danner FullBore. Profits go to Team Rubicon.

In that village in Nepal, we got caught in the second earthquake—it was a 7.4. We’d just finished working on the school in the village, and we were hanging lunch when we start feeling what we thought was an aftershock—just a small little quake—but then it kept increasing in power and just wouldn’t stop. I remember looking at a fellow team member about 20 feet away, and I could see the whites of his eyes. 

And at that moment, I was brought back to Colombia. In 2011, we were doing almost the same exact work there for the Navy. We were working on a school and had finished for the day. We packed up, got in our van, and drove over this bridge. A few seconds later, the bridge blew up behind us, almost taking our lives. I remember looking beside me at my fellow sailors and seeing the whites of their eyes then too. 

In both moments, I felt like I was looking at myself—like they were reflecting what I looked like back to me. 

After Nepal, there wasn’t time to talk about that moment or cope with it. But as I got home, I was struggling with post-traumatic stress from both Nepal and Colombia combined. I remember having night terrors of jungles engulfing me, and my wife told me that I was yelling in my sleep. 

I dealt with that and suffered depression for almost a year, until I went on another Team Rubicon trip to Ecuador. Some of the people who went had been with me on the Nepal mission. Finally I had people to talk who were familiar with the situation I was going through. When I told them I’d been struggling, I just remembered them looking at me with sadness because they also dealt with very similar problems after they left Nepal.

At that point, it clicked with me that it’s important to talk. I shared this experience, so I can work through it, but also so my team members can open up to me about what’s going on with them. Team Rubicon is a great outlet for sharing these stories with people who understand them. 

Team Rubicon

Team Rubicon

Is there anything else you do that helps you unwind?

After I finished a deployment, specifically a disaster deployment, scuba diving and rock climbing allow me to reflect. In both of these sports, you get to push yourself independently, but you’ve also got a buddy there to watch your back.

I’m going to go out there and do my part, but I know my team has my back no matter what.

With scuba diving, you're immersed underwater. You don’t hear anything from the outside world, and it gives you time to clear your head and feel weightless—like you’re floating. But I know that next to me, I have my dive buddy—my wife. If something were to happen underwater, she has my back. It’s the same thing with rock climbing. You’re challenging yourself. You’re the one who’s climbing the wall, not anyone else. But I’m tethered to my belayer, who’s making sure I don’t fall. 

That’s really a metaphor for what team Rubicon is to me. I’m going to go out there and do my part, but I know my team has my back no matter what.

What do you hope people take from the stories you’re telling?

My hope is that my work can help you put yourself where we are and where these communities are. The stories, the photos, the videos that I’m able to provide—it’s a way for others to see what we’re doing out here. My hope is that people are motivated to be a part of it.

Team Rubicon in Nepal

Ready to answer Jonathen’s call? Join Team Rubicon’s 105,000 registered volunteers out on the field. Veteran or not, if you’re committed to serving those in need, there’s a place for you on the team. Sign up here. You can also donate or buy from our Team Rubicon shop, where 100% of profits go to the cause. 

Jonathen Davis

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