By Julie H. Case

As a midshipman, Commander Art delaCruz ’91, USN (Ret.), didn’t imagine that within a decade, he’d be among the first minorities to serve as a TOPGUN instructor. Nor did he imagine that instead of getting a port of call on 11 September 2001 as originally scheduled, he’d remain in the Persian Gulf and go on to launch on one of the first strikes on Afghanistan off Enterprise.

Most of all, the hockey-playing midshipman didn’t imagine that, in 2022, he’d be leading military veterans into a very different kind of service, delivering disaster response services and humanitarian aid in places like tornado-ravaged Kentucky and battleworn Kyiv, Ukraine. The foundation of service ingrained into delaCruz at the Academy and his 22-year Navy career prepared him to lead monumental support efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, resettling Afghan refugees and Russia’s war on the Ukraine.

Becoming Disaster’s Top Gun

After retiring from the Navy, delaCruz worked in the private sector for about 2.5 years. In March 2016, he joined emergency response nonprofit Team Rubicon as chief operating officer. By 2019, delaCruz had personally responded to six disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey and Dorain, and helped the organization respond to hundreds more.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he helped Team Rubicon pivot to respond to the humanitarian crisis domestically. Initially, the organization developed a program to deploy volunteers within their home communities to aid their neighbors. Then, it launched an emergency feeding assistance program that had Greyshirts—Team Rubicon’s nickname for its grey shirt wearing volunteers—delivering food, water and more to people with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

The organization also got busy setting up field hospitals and testing centers, and eventually launched a vaccination support program that would help get more than 1.6 million Americans vaccinated.

Meanwhile, delaCruz was heading up efforts specifically targeted at engaging veterans. In February 2021, he helped found the Veterans Coalition for Vaccination (VCV). The VCV—and its veteran volunteers—would provide health departments, communities and public agencies across the U.S. with the administrative, logistical and operational support needed to stand up and maintain vaccination sites. Together, Greyshirts and veterans from the VCV mobilized to deliver vaccines everywhere from the inner city to rural outposts in Wyoming and Alaska to improve equitable access to vaccinations to all Americans regardless of geographic or socioeconomic limitations.

In July 2021, as Team Rubicon continued its transition back to traditional disaster operations, such as responding to Hurricanes Laura and Ida, delaCruz took over as Team Rubicon’s chief executive officer.
“For me, as Team Rubicon’s CEO, it’s not just about ensuring the chainsaws run smoothly, it’s about ensuring the sawyers have the kind of Greyshirt experience that makes more glitter [aka sawdust] fly, faster, farther and harder for more disaster survivors,” delaCruz said. “I’ll know I’ve succeeded if I’ve made it possible for more Greyshirts to get more done.
“If I’ve helped create the kind of experience that has them coming back for more—asking for more ways to serve more disaster survivors, more often, more quickly, more efficiently—I’ll count that as a success.”

A Privilege Paid Forward

Even as the organization began to return to “normal”—standing up operations after tornadoes swept Kentucky; helping mitigate against wildfires in the West—a new crisis arose that called for the very skills, expertise and distinct knowledge of veteran volunteers, the fall of Afghanistan.

In August, Team Rubicon began putting many veterans who had done tours in Afghanistan to work helping resettle Afghan refugees in America. As of June 2022, Greyshirts had completed more than 605 home move-ins and served more than 2,240 Afghan individuals via deliveries, home set-ups and move-in support.
In March of 2022, Team Rubicon also began sending doctors, nurses and EMTs—many of whom had been military medics—to Ukraine.

delaCruz keeps tabs on the unique opportunity each crisis brings to engage veterans in an all-new kind of service, and prepares to inject them into the solution. He believes no one is more equipped to respond to disasters and humanitarian crises than the all-volunteer force of men and women who have already demonstrated a bias to serve; who are predisposed to help those in need and are intent on service to society and country.

“There is richness to the veteran in knowing that in serving, they are putting community before self. And in that many find reward and satisfaction,” delaCruz said.
Meanwhile, in giving veterans the chance to serve again, delaCruz is getting the unique privilege back that he discovered leading enlisted sailors, the realization that the decisions he makes are impacting the lives of these service members.

Changing Course

The Naval Academy wasn’t delaCruz’s first choice. He accepted a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
During his freshman year in Minneapolis, MN, he had a crisis of faith, of sorts, his exclusively educational experience was incredibly unfulfilling. Seeking to change course, delaCruz called his congressman’s office and got his attention. The congressman wanted to hear delaCruz’s story in person. After explaining his desire to attend the Naval Academy, delaCruz received a nomination, although he did not find out he received an appointment until he was taking finals, a few weeks before I-Day.
“I kind of ‘found’ myself there,” said delaCruz. “Annapolis was where you really began to grow and understand a life of service. I wasn’t predisposed to it. I was just one of those people lucky enough to be there.”
A passion for service was cemented in delaCruz at the Academy.

Airspace Above Afghanistan

The second in a family of five kids, delaCruz was the first—though not the last—in his family to go into the military. A younger brother, Commander Daniel delaCruz ’00, USN, would follow fairly closely in his footsteps.
Upon graduation, Art delaCruz went to flight school, then deployed as a naval flight officer.
By 1998 he received orders to TOPGUN, to serve as an instructor, likely the first Asian American Pacific Islander to hold the position.

By September 2001, delaCruz was in the Persian Gulf, serving as the training officer of Fighter Squadron Fourteen, an F-14 squadron attached to ENTERPRISE. They had just completed their responsibilities enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq and were getting ready to be relieved by the next battle group when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers. The 5,000 people of the battlegroup awaited word from the President.

There would be no reprieve for ENTERPRISE. On 17 October, the U.S. fired its first Tomahawk strikes, with fighters launching off ENTERPRISE.

“They said, ‘we’re going to open up the door for everyone else to come in,’ and so our mission of three aircraft did just that. We soared over Kabul, avoided the attempts to shoot us down and destroyed the target,” delaCruz said.
“And then we did it again and again, every night, even when we were being shot at from the ground and by enemy forces in the air, through November.”

The Privilege to Lead

Flying F-14s, being a part of first strikes into Afghanistan, and being the first Asian instructor at TOPGUN may have been exciting and an honor, but it was leading others that gave delaCruz the greatest satisfaction during his 22 years of service.
“In my first tours as an officer, I really learned how amazing and what a privilege it was to lead sailors,” delaCruz said.
“As I sat there with all of these 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, and working closely with my chiefs, I realized that the decisions I would make would impact their lives and influence them. It was an incredible change, and it’s where leadership became really special.”
Another career-defining moment for delaCruz was the breadth of experience earned over his more than two-decade military career.
“One of the philosophies encouraged by an early mentor was to never do what you already know how to do, and that philosophy led me to be an assignments officer in Tennessee,” delaCruz said. “You’re out of the cockpit, but you’re helping people’s careers.”
Being selected as a Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellow was also incredibly valuable to delaCruz.
“My assignment to McKinsey and Company taught me that, from a business and people perspective, there was a lot more to learn about the world beyond what I’d learned in the military,” he said.

delaCruz parlayed that knowledge to transition out of active duty in 2013, landing first as a senior director of business development, then as a senior director of strategy at Northrup Grumman. In 2014, he met Jake Wood and discovered four-year-old Team Rubicon. Founded by Wood in 2010 in response to the earthquake in Haiti, Team Rubicon deploys veteran volunteers in response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises in the U.S. and around the world.
“It gets back to that idea that’s common across so many of our volunteers, this is a chance to reconnect with community, identity and purpose,” said delaCruz of why he joined the disaster relief nonprofit.

At Team Rubicon, delaCruz used the breadth of experience he’d accrued in the military to help deploy other veterans in response to disasters—such as Hurricanes Harvey and Dorian. He and other leaders of Team Rubicon believe veterans are uniquely suited to serve in the uncertain and often dynamic situations to which the organization responds—disasters and humanitarian crises. Adept at quickly forming teams and skilled at helping a larger entity succeed, they know how to work together to accomplish a mission.
“With veterans, there is an understanding that the most important obligation is to never fail the man or woman next to you in order for the whole to succeed,” delaCruz said.

The ability to follow orders—and when in a position of leadership, to provide clear direction and delegation—is a critical component for success in a disaster zone, and something veterans are also incredibly adept at. They are comfortable switching between leadership and executor roles as is necessary based on each unique situation in a disaster.
“A common saying amongst the ranks is ‘learn your job, teach your job, learn your next job.’ This mantra, born out of the possibility of attrition on the battlefield, ensures depth of skills and an understanding that one must be ready to jump in as required. Having such a force as our backbone is critical to doing everything from deciding which neighborhood we might serve first to clearing a route through tornado debris.”

Source: Shipmate: September 2022