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'Indiana has done it right' | Veteran leading Camp Atterbury donation effort praises Hoosiers' response

Russ Hessler has led the charge of volunteers sorting donations for the Afghan evacuees, which includes veterans and active-duty members of the military.

JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind. — So many Hoosiers donated clothes, shoes, toys and toiletries to help thousands of Afghan evacuees start new lives in America.

The mission for military members and volunteers is still going strong, even as that donation effort starts to wind down.

That includes one veteran at the helm of the warehouse sorting station, who's expressing gratitude about giving back on this Thanksgiving holiday.

For nearly three months, generosity has been on full display in the warehouse in Johnson County. Pallet after pallet of donated items have been rolling in, ready to be sorted and sent to Camp Atterbury.

The veteran-led nonprofit Team Rubicon is spearheading the effort. Right from the beginning of the mission, Russ Hessler has led the charge of volunteers, which includes veterans and active-duty members of the military.

Credit: WTHR
A team of volunteers made up of veterans and active-duty military is helping Team Rubicon at the warehouse.

In the middle of a swath of "gray shirt" volunteers, from veterans to active-duty military members, right from the beginning of the mission, Russ Hessler has led the charge.

"I got here Saturday, Sept. 4," Hessler said. "The next day, we sort of hit the ground running and with so many donations coming in, it's been amazing. I'll tell you, Indiana has done it right."

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"He's been our go-to guy," said Bob Hunter, an Army veteran and a volunteer for Team Rubicon. "We were literally working out of boxes and now we have organization and a lot of that's attributed to him."

The former Marine from Columbus, Ohio, who has worked disaster relief efforts as a volunteer for Team Rubicon since 2017, stepped up as a paid, leased employee when the nonprofit stepped in for the Afghan mission.

And, Hessler joked, he gets "free housing."

"Yes, I work from 'home.' This is home," he said, laughing as he pointed out a cot nearby.

Credit: WTHR
Russ Hessler's "home" is a cot in the warehouse where donations are collected.

Hessler is not only working, but also living at the warehouse.

For nearly three months, he's slept on a Red Cross-issued cot, with a towel, toiletries and clothes in a cubicle nearby and a desk across the way, in a makeshift office that operates close to 24/7.

"When I got the call, I looked at my wife, I said, 'Are you OK if I do this? 'Cause it might be a week, it might be two or three weeks. It might be a couple months.' She said, 'I support you.' It's great to have that support at home base, because I love this mission," Hessler said. 

Hessler will spend Thanksgiving at the warehouse.

He and his tag-team partner for Team Rubicon traded holidays, so Hessler will be home for Christmas.

RELATED: Hoosiers asked to donate to Afghan refugees as cold weather approaches

Bob Evans turkey is on the menu for the skeleton crew on Thursday. But even though he's away from his wife and teenage daughter, Hessler said this experience has been meaningful and special.

He's savoring Hoosier hospitality, which he said he quickly learned is not just a tagline.

"It's real," he said. "It's just everyday citizens who want to help and they want to do something and it's...I'm very proud of them. Just in awe of each of them."

Hessler said what he sees at the warehouse day in and day out - the dedication of volunteers, the donations from Hoosiers, sum up the meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Neighbors helping strangers, with gratitude.

"Participating in this has been, I don't want to call it an accomplishment, but has been one of the best opportunities in my life. I know I will look back on it with fond memories and just gratitude to be able to participate," Hessler said. "I'm just one guy sleeping on a cot in a warehouse. But the people across the state of Indiana and maybe then some, that what they've done has fulfilled the mission."

Hessler's mission will continue in Johnson County through early January.