Running with Team RWB

One little known fact about the generation of men that fought “the Good War” is that many of them — like combat veterans before and since — found it incredibly difficult to readjust to life at home.

“Peace,” Maureen Daly wrote in the Ladies’ Home Journal in May 1947, “It’s a problem.”

Once the Second World War ended, most people were anxious to “get back to normal,” but many veterans found that normal seemed to be in short supply. Many veterans, in fact, had “dreamed of home and longed for it, day and night, for years. And now…there’s something wrong: He’s changed…or it’s changed…or else it hasn’t, when it seems to him it should have changed.”

It wasn’t long before some veterans became disillusioned and bitter. A veteran of the war in the Pacific realized after the fact that he had “lost three years out of [his] life, playing catch up in school, catch up economically, catch up.” His old friends, he discovered, had graduated from college. Two were doctors; all had careers. “I was so bitter,” he later recalled, “you wouldn’t recognize me.” At the separation center, he was advised that his wartime experience as an infantry sergeant qualified him to be a “Maine hunting guide.” Instead, he became “a drunk and a wild man…. I had no direction, no ambition,” he recalled. “I was just overwhelmed with bitterness and full of hate and envy.”

After fighting in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific and then occupying the island of Okinawa, my grandfather — Harold “Hod” Chrisinger — was honorably discharged at Fort Sheridan, just outside Chicago, Illinois.

My grandfather, Harold Chrisinger, at Fort Sheridan just before he was discharged from the Army in November 1946. He's in the middle row, third from the left.
My grandfather, Harold Chrisinger, at Fort Sheridan just before he was discharged from the Army in November 1946. He’s in the middle row, third from the left.

Like many of his fellow veterans, my grandfather found himself bristling with resentment, unable to articulate what it was about civilian life that dissatisfied him most. I suppose he felt like he wasn’t necessary anymore, that he had no purpose. While he was in the Army, he was a part of something larger than himself — something that civilians back home just couldn’t understand.

Luckily, he found some of what he was missing through the American Legion. In Taylor, Wisconsin, where my grandfather was born and raised, the American Legion started a basketball team for the veterans of that community. Once again, my grandfather was part of a team, something he sorely needed.

The 1946 Taylor, Wisconsin American Legion basketball team. My grandfather is seated in the bottom row, all the way to the left.
The Taylor, Wisconsin American Legion basketball team, 1946. My grandfather is seated in the bottom row, all the way to the left.

Fast forward almost 70 years later.

In addition to the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, there are approximately 40,000 other non-profit organizations that try to help veterans in some way. Yet even with all of this “help,” there are hundreds of thousands of veterans struggling with the after-effects of war, not knowing how to be civilians again.

What are we doing wrong? What’s missing?

When asked what a returning post-9/11 veteran needs to help ease their transition back to civilian life, Boston University psychology professor Michael Otto responded, “For the returning veteran, a number of things are important. One is the mood boost [you get from exercise]. Second is this return to achievement — veterans leave structured, important lives for a much vaguer life, and sports training gives you structure. And then there’s this social integration — you get to join a team.”

“When I left active duty, I was lost, confused, and angry,” writes Iraq war veteran Eddie Carmona. “I felt lost, because after 4.5 years, 2 tours in Iraq and stop loss for 6 months, I was left with the feeling of worthlessness.”

Luckily for veterans like Carmona, an organization called Team Red, White & Blue was there to help.

 Eddie Carmona
Iraq War veteran and Team RWB member Eddie Carmona

As of February 2014, Team RWB has a membership list of over 31,000 veterans and civilians. Started by U.S. Army Major Mike Erwin almost four years ago, Team RWB’s mission has evolved from supporting and honoring American service members wounded in action to enriching the lives of America’s veterans by “connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.”

“About 60 percent of veterans don’t go back to where they grew up when they leave the military,” Joe Quinn, the Northeast Regional Director of Team RWB, explained to me. “They don’t have the social support systems they had before they joined the military.”

“They’re used to PT [physical training], being in units, going to socials and banquets. They’re used to being a part of a cloistered group.” But when veterans get out of the military, Quinn continues, “There’s no PT, no team, no mandatory activities, no structure.”

“For a lot of our members,” Quinn says, “Team RWB replicates the structure, meaning, and purpose they lost when they left the military.”

“I noticed as I did more of these runs,” Carmona continues, “I met more people. Not just fellow vets, but civilians as well. It taught me how to integrate better. I also noticed that I was becoming less angry at everything and felt like I could fit back into society.”

Running with Team RWB not only helped Carmona keep intrusive thoughts at bay, but also gave him an outlet to work through all the stress that had built up over the course of his time in the military. “I could actually sleep again,” he writes, “and I could talk to people, and I had a place in a world that at one time seemed so foreign to me. Running gave me a way to exert all the negative things I kept inside. It helped me reduce my stress and anxiety. It helped me reunite with a community…and not just with veterans. It pretty much gave me my life back.”

Running, according to Erwin, is the “most under-prescribed medication.” For veterans with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, running can rebuild them both psychologically and socially. “It’s that powerful a tool.”

According to best-selling author of Born to Run, Christopher McDougall, America has seen a surge in the popularity of long-distance running three times in its relatively short history. Each time, McDougall points out, was in the midst of a national crisis: The Great Depression, the early 1970s, and one year after 9/11.

Even before the Great Depression, however, America’s interest in long-distance running soared following two other national crises: The Civil War and the First World War.

According to historian Dixon Wecter, following the Civil War, long-distance walking and running events were all the craze: There was, for example, a “Bostonian” who walked “forty miles a day in April 1865, carrying the Stars and Stripes to Washington to celebrate the fall of Richmond;” a mania for marathon athletes in Michigan in the summer of 1865; and in New Orleans in September that year, the attempt of one Mr. Harris “to walk for 100 consecutive hours without rest.”

For veterans, these events were “the channels in which to work off superfluous excitement,” wrote the editor of the Army and Navy Journal in October 1866. “And, meanwhile, the friendly associations recall the camaraderie of the campaign.”

“As in 1865,” Wecter continues, “America rediscovered [at the conclusion of the First World War] the cult of fitness and the outdoor life.

“Nerves, like springs coiled under tension, were now released and quivering,” he wrote. “Long walks, the spending of physical energy, seemed to give relief.”

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In February of this year, General (Ret.) David Patraeus was the guest of honor and keynote speaker at a dinner supporting Team RWB that was hosted by the University of Michigan’s chapter of the Student Veterans of America.

General (Ret.) David Petraeus (left) and Mike Erwin, founder of Team RWB, February 2014
General (Ret.) David Petraeus (left) and Mike Erwin, founder of Team RWB, February 2014.

“With some 2.7 million veterans having already served and then taken off the uniform since 9/11,” General (Ret.) Patraeus said, “and with over a million more veterans exiting the service in the next four years, there obviously are many of our comrades to whom Team RWB needs to reach.”

To that end, Team RWB recently partnered with the New York Road Runners (NYRR) to bring military veterans into the running communities in and around New York City. This partnership includes an “Armed Services Veterans” membership option for all military veterans, as well as lower race fees throughout the year.

“It was really a no-brainer for us,” says Jenny LaVelle, the Marketing Manager for NYRR. “When Joe Quinn and Team RWB reached out to us, we jumped at the opportunity to help veterans.”

“Not only will becoming a member of NYRR help veterans maintain a healthy, active lifestyle,” LaVelle told me, “but it will help bridge the gap between the military and civilians by helping veterans better integrate themselves into the community.”

“Any means we can use,” Quinn told me, “to help bring veterans and civilians together, in a healthy way, that builds genuine relationships — that’s what Team RWB is all about.”

Quinn, a native of Marine Park, Brooklyn, was in his senior year at the United States Military Academy at West Point when terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center buildings.

After graduating from West Point in 2002, Quinn deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004. He deployed to Iraq again in November 2006, this time for 16 months. From there he attended graduate school at Harvard University and then went to Afghanistan in 2010 to work as a civilian advisor.

After he returned to the United States, he realized that he wanted to stop focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan and start focusing on his community by helping veterans make the same difficult transition my grandfather made when he came home to Wisconsin in 1946.

In addition to offering veterans discounts at NYRR races throughout the year, veterans are also able to volunteer for a number of different events aimed at getting kids more active. “So far this spring, we’ve had 55 events,” LaVelle told me last month. “NYRR is all about improving the health and well-being of people in our communities, and that starts with the kids. These events are great opportunities for vets to work with these kids, which I’m sure gives a lot of them a new sense of purpose.”

A couple of months ago, I became an official member of Team RWB. About 20 percent of all Team RWB members are like me in that they are “non-prior service civilians,” which is a clunky way of saying that they have not ever served in the military.

“Most of the civilian members join for a couple main reasons,” Quinn told me. “They either have a connection to the military and want to help veterans, or they’re really physically active and they want to give veterans something more than a handshake: their time and friendship.”

Or…they’re both.

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If you’re interested in learning more about Team RWB, check out their website. You can also go here to find a chapter near you.

If you live in the tri-state area and are interested in becoming a member of the New York Road Runners, you can apply for a membership here.

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