“What’s always intrigued me about you is you’re a progressive liberal with veterans as her main cause”, said my friend and mentor, Sergeant George O’Keefe, as we were catching up after his second deployment to Afghanistan. I understand why my leadership of Team Red, White & Blue Maine is surprising. A female civilian – with few ties to the military – is not your “typical” veteran advocate.

But, in actuality, I come from a long line of people who have pushed for social change. My grandmother was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights who became a State Senator at 52 and helped pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Vermont. As an attorney general, my uncle has led major cases against Big Tobacco and nuclear energy. Though she was never in the military, my mother firmly believed in “no man left behind” and instilled in me a powerful commitment to community service and a lifelong dedication to volunteering.

So, when news broke in 2007 of the horrific conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I was galvanized to take action. As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran (USMC) and the grand-daughter of a WW II veteran (Army), I grew up hearing stories of the courage, sacrifice, and honor of serving in the military. Wounded veterans coming home to moldy, rat-infested conditions was unspeakable to me. I felt that helping veterans feel respected and supported as they returned to civilian life was righting an awful wrong.

After searching for a good “fit”, I heard about TRWB in a 2012 NPR story. I loved their hands-on approach to supporting veterans and their emphasis on physical fitness, a long-standing passion of mine. Immediately, I committed to starting a chapter and launched TRWB Maine in January 2013 with a lot of drive and a list of 10 names.

Since that time, I’ve grown the Maine chapter to 180 members and expanded our events from 10 to more than 30 per year. While I’m enormously proud of the quantifiable ways our chapter has evolved, it’s the more intangible, personal growth I’ve experienced that is much more meaningful to me.

Over the past 22 months, I have learned so much from TRWB members about commitment, resiliency, and inspiring others. The young vet who helps homeless vets get active in their communities, while coping with his own PTSD symptoms. The civilian wife, left home to deal with a long driveway and one of the worst winters in Maine while her husband was deployed for nine months. A vibrant, tireless veteran advocate who privately told me that without TRWB she would be “so depressed” in her return to civilian life.

I’m so proud to serve all of them and it’s their energy and fire that inspires me through long nights answering e-mails and early mornings driving to races. In the U.S., we honor veterans on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but in Eagle Nation we honor veterans every day.

With the approach of “Make a Difference Day” (October 25), I’ve reflected on what I’ve learned from making a difference in my community. In Team Red, White & Blue, we are guided by six Core Values: Passion, People, Positivity, Commitment, Community, and Camaraderie. I think that the following are key to my success in leading a TRWB chapter and to anyone who wishes to make a difference:

PASSION: I believe that our society will prosper only if we maximize the talents, training, and dedication to service exemplified by our 1M+ returning veterans. So, I’m committed to making TRWB Maine a crucial resource veterans turn to for guidance, support, and fun as they evaluate the next chapter of their lives.

Maybe your PASSION is that you care about this country, and you want to have a positive role in our future?

COMMITMENT: To me, COMMITMENT and PASSION go hand in hand. It’s wonderful to want to help others, but success comes down to COMMITMENT. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But consistent, high-quality execution is the only way to demonstrate to yourself and others that you are determined to make a difference in your community.

POSITIVITY: A recent Pew Research study found that divisions in American society are the deepest since the Civil War. But in TRWB, we stand for inclusion and collaboration. Our POSITIVITY fuels our growth and inspires others to join our team.

As you’re evaluating how you’ll make a difference, consider – in a negative, fractured society, what will you do to spread POSITIVITY? In April The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that volunteerism is at an all-time low in America. But I don’t see that in Eagle Nation. Our more than 50,000 civilian, active duty, and veteran volunteers come together at 5Ks, in bowling alleys, and at pasta parties worldwide to share our experiences, our passion, and our commitment to building a better society.

So, as we prepare for Make a Difference Day, I ask you – if I, a civilian woman, can successfully lead a veteran advocacy organization, what will YOU do to make a difference? As a first step, why not Join Our Team? (http://www.teamrwb.org/)

 

Imagine crossing the finish line to a race that you never thought you would get to do, but wanted so badly it hurt; to finally be able to participate alongside family and friends, rather than cheer from the side lines; to win in front of a crowd when others didn’t think it a possibility for you; to show people that while at first glance you may appear as a “poor little thing”, “handicapped”, “wheelchair dependent”, you actually can defy odds, steamroll over what people say “can’t be done,” and kick some major butt.

Cecilia has led a life of proving science, medicine, experts, statistics, and so much more wrong. She survived a tumultuous pregnancy, a very premature birth, a rare and deathly illness (she was the first survivor of a total of four cases from the NICU she graduated), an uncommon and serious risk of surgery, and a rare and severe life threatening condition secondary to her brain damage. So often Cecilia has been tokened ”the medical mystery” and has been part of too many case studies to count. This little engine that could has had her a** kicked by life, but refuses to give up.  While she is often quiet and speaks in short phrases, Cecilia is a very feisty, ornery pistol of a little girl with a great sense of humor.  Despite tight and painful muscles and joint contractures, this girl wakes up smiling every single day.

In the spring of 2013, Cecilia started becoming regularly unconscious for 10 minutes up to 10 hours.  At first, physicians thought it was seizures, but as time went on it became evident this wasn’t textbook.  During these “episodes”, Cecilia’s temperature would drop into the 80’s, oxygen saturations would drop below 70%, heart rate in the 40’s, and scary low blood pressures.  Weeks in the hospital running every sort of diagnostic tests determined she was completely healthy.   Cecilia’s physician performed significant research of case studies, reached out to colleagues in the field internationally to discuss her case, and figured out she was likely having autonomic dysfunction involving her hypothalmus.  The severity of her condition was rare and serious. In layman’s terms – the part of the brain that controls life’s most basic functions to live and survive, understandably the most protected part of the brain – was “storming” or misfiring and freaking out. There were just 50 documented individual case studies – and none showed good results from the treatments each tried.  In fact, the only thing consistent was that little helped to lessen the severity of the symptoms, and when treatment seemed to be somewhat effective, it only helped for a few months before it quit working.

We spent three weeks in the hospital trying different medications and dosages with little improvement.  Cecilia was fine in between these “episodes” and quickly became sick of sitting in a hospital bed hooked up to machines. From playing tricks (like bringing a running crowd of nurses and physicians to her room by holding her breath and causing her monitors to alarm) to being grumpy and depressed, she made it clear she just wanted to go back to her regular life. As her mom, I was scared watching her knock on death’s door with her episodes and heartbroken seeing her so miserable in between them.  I finally made the very difficult decision to take her home – because the best gift I could give her was quality of life. Her physician agreed with me – science and medicine were limited and they didn’t have a known solution to “fix” her.  It was one of the hardest choices I have had to make. While I knew this was what she wanted, I struggled immensely – this was not the order of life. As her parent I was supposed to be the one who died first, not me burying her.

Several conversations and challenging choices were made: orders for a “limited code” and “do not rescucitate” were put in place.  I took Cecilia home to get back to life as she knew it – going to school with her friends – and to make every single moment matter in case it was her last.  I cried every single night – from stress, grief, exhaustion, being overwhelmed as a single mother with no one to help carry the weight of all of this, the unfairness of the entire situation, and hopelessness that there was not a damn thing in the world I could do to help or fix her.

Lucy, Cecilia’s little sister – wise beyond her 7 years – quickly picked up on the seriousness of the situation.  She asked gut wrenching, heart breaking questions that no child her age should ever have even have a notion to contemplate.  Lucy would process for hours in her head and then would react as she was emotionally able to – as a 7 year old – who was sad, mad, frustrated, angry, scared, and so many other emotions she didn’t yet even know the vocabulary to name.  As she struggled with the idea that a kid, her very own big sis, could actually die, I too was challenged with getting my head around it – and that was with 30 years of life experience on her.  We planned Cecilia’s life celebration (aka funeral) down to every detail – because it gave Lucy a sense of control for which she longed.

Prior to all of this, I had registered Cecilia to do a triathlon in July of 2013. Coming from a family of runners and triathletes, and being one myself, I had decided it was time for Cecilia to experience triathlon.  Now (end of May), there wasn’t much hope she would survive to see June. Her episodes were lasting longer, occurring more frequently, and it was becoming difficult to leave the house with her because of her physiological instability.  I found a “back up” kid who had cerebral palsy to take Cecilia’s spot in the race. I decided I would give this experience to a child with cerebral palsy annually to honor Cecilia and have her legacy live on.

June 1st came – and Cecilia was alive.  She was able to perform in her dance recitals mid-June despite having her “episodes”. We took a Make a Wish trip in the third week of June – and even though she had a really bad and long episode just a few days before we were scheduled to depart – we made a ton of great memories.  Near the end of June and after continual medication dosing changes, her episodes started to become less frequent (from 1-3 per day lasting 3-10 hours to 1-2 per week lasting 45 minutes – 3 hours). July 1st came, and she was still alive.

On July 13, 2013 Cecilia was loaded into the two man raft boat. I tethered it to my makeshift harness, said to her, “Let’s do this!” with a fist bump, and swam her to the race start.

A coworker waited at the swim exit, a family friend waited in transition next to the bike and trailer, her grandma had her running shoes laced up and was ready with the jogging stroller, some 20+ family and friends stood in their blue Team Cecilia t-shirts, and word quickly spread among the 1500+ triathletes and spectators standing nearby that a little girl in a wheelchair was getting ready to indeed participate in this triathlon.

As I swam Cecilia that morning, the crowd was deafening. I couldn’t help but smile and feel a flood of emotion.  For once, my little girl with so much spirit, who truly personifies perseverance and determination, was getting the praise she deserved. Rather than people pointing, looking away, or worse, casting stares of pity, they were cheering with approval and support.  The entire race was that way – top triathletes that caught up with us on the course (despite our 15 minute early start) – yelled, “Great job! You are awesome!”

Cecilia’s face was one big huge smile – she was having the time of her life. She was finally a part of something she had watched her entire life and hoped to do.  She was doing what every kid wants to – swim, fly down a hill on a bike, and run with the carefree spirit that only a child can.

When we crossed the finish line, I had no idea how long it took us.  I had no clue what place we were in.  For once, I didn’t care and it didn’t matter.  At that moment, as my throat got tight and I blinked back tears, I thought, ”Holy sh*t!  She shouldn’t even be here.  Who cares about kicking cerebral palsy’s ass.  Cecilia is still alive!  That is a first place win if ever there was one!”

As we have continued on this journey, Cecilia has miraculously improved thanks to the dedication of her medical team.  In 2014, she went snow skiing, hiking, white river rafting, horseback riding, alpine sliding, and canoeing.  She was registered for four triathlons this summer (two have been cancelled mid-race due to weather) and finished first in her age group for a 5K.

I joined Team RWB this past spring after talking to a couple of fellow triathlete friends who were already members and seeing there was a weekly group run close to my house.  My friends talked about the “family” of fellow team members wherever you go, and the mission of enriching the lives of veterans through the community created by sport and recreation.  Cecilia has taught me that there is always something to smile about and never a good reason to not get out and get moving.  Finally, doing something that gives back to those that have ensured the luxury of our freedom and equality of all regardless of ability – it seemed like a natural fit.  My entire crazy family (I have three kids) has been embraced by Team RWB.  My youngest two often accompany me for the group runs – either cheering or jeering the other runners.  All of us ran with the Team at a recent 5K.  We are all proud to sport the eagle, but most of all – grateful to have such a strong support group!  I look forward to participating in more Team RWB events – and our big goal for this year is to get Cecilia to finish her first marathon at Marine Corp in October! Boom!

 

 

September 22, 2014 by Blayne Smith courtesy of VAntage Point, Dispatches from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

You may know Team RWB as the organization that is getting Veterans active. You’ve likely seen us at a local 5k, yoga studio, or CrossFit gym …”wearing the eagle” and sweating together. And while physical and social activities are certainly WHAT we do, enriching Veteran’s lives is WHY we do it.

This summer, we conducted a survey of more than 4,400 of our members from across the organization in an effort quantify the impact of Team RWB.

Findings:

The survey results were clear and compelling. A significant majority of members across all categories (Veteran, civilian, Active Duty) reported living richer lives since joining the organization. They indicated improved health (physical, mental, and emotional), more meaningful relationships, and a stronger sense of purpose and identity. Moreover, while outcomes were generally positive, those who are active in the organization consistently reported much higher levels of enrichment than those who identified themselves as less active.

For example, nearly half (45 percent) of “less active” RWB Veterans felt part of something bigger than themselves, but the percentage jumped to 94 percent for those Team RWB Veterans who defined themselves as “active.” Similarly, 61 percent of active Team RWB Veterans felt that they were “less down, depressed, or hopeless!”

Shared Purpose and Connectivity:

A groundbreaking component of the study was measuring the benefits of belonging to an organization that helped them to establish authentic connections. While more than half (57 percent) of our “less active” members said they benefited from the opportunity to share their personal journeys, an astonishing 86 percent of “active” members found these experiences to be beneficial to them.

Additionally, Veterans have more people they can turn to for emotional support (57 percent), they are more involved in the local community (60 percent), they have more programs they can turn to for resources (64 percent), and two-thirds they feel an increased sense of brotherhood/sisterhood in their lives (66 percent).

Bridging the Civilian/Military Divide:

Team RWB programs create genuine connections between Veterans and their civilian counterparts. A majority of Veterans (73 percent among active members) reported sharing the challenges they face as a veteran with civilians, and 87 percent demonstrated the strengths they have as a Veteran to civilians. Of equal importance, 75 percent of civilian members stated that they better understand both the challenges and strengths of Veterans in their communities.

Well Being:

Important improvements have been reported on Veterans’ well being since joining Team RWB. A majority of Veterans reported exercising more frequently since joining the team (61 percent), one-out-of-three veterans (33 percent) reported feeling less nervous, anxious or on edge, and 15 percent reported drinking less alcohol.

Life Satisfaction:

Overall, 56 percent (79percent among active members) of Veterans reported greater satisfaction and nearly half (49 percent) agreed that the conditions of their life had improved. An incredible number, 90 percent, would recommend Team RWB to other Veterans.

Get Involved:

Our challenge for the future is to continue driving active engagement. The programs are working. Though, Veterans who identify themselves as less active, report positive outcomes, it is clear that there are significant benefits to increased participation in Team RWB sponsored activities. While we are very proud of these results, we will continue striving to serve more Veterans and more communities, more often.

Engaging and connecting with Veterans is often the most critical step to accessing resources, finding new ways to lead, and ultimately making a smooth transition. If you’ve been involved in your own way or in one of our local Team RWB chapters, you’ve already seen this in action.

If you haven’t found a community of your own, we invite you to “Eagle Up” and find a Team RWB chapter in your town.

About Blayne Smith

Blayne works closely with Team RWB’s board members, staff, and volunteer leaders to develop and implement programs that serve veterans across the country. Blayne is a West Point graduate and former Special Forces officer with combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Blayne currently resides in Tampa, Florida with his two boys and leads the Team RWB Tampa chapter.

 

 

As we head into the 4th of July weekend (when hopefully TeamRWB members can relax and enjoy some beach or staycation reading), we thought you’d enjoy an excerpt from Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness, by J.C. Herz  a book about CrossFit’s spirit and ethos and the biological and spiritual role of physical intensity in our lives. This excerpt about the kinship between CrossFit and the military has been warmly received by veterans from Fort Bragg to Camp Leatherneck. For folks interested in reading more, books purchased through this link will benefit TeamRWB.org, and Fire has a lively community of military and civilian CrossFitters on Facebook.


Fallujah, For Time: Sprinting Wars and the Next Generation of Combat Training

By this time, CrossFit was proliferating across two war zones and infiltrating military bases around the world. It was cheap, improvised, and time-efficient. It didn’t break in heat or dust. And it made soldiers physically more powerful than they’d ever been, in a new era of military conflict that demanded heavy loads be hauled as quickly as possible from point to point. Counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan was not a game of long marches and precise campaigns. In a landscape of steep hillsides, hot stairwells, and dangerous corners, hazard boiled up in sudden twenty minute bursts of load-bearing cardiovascular suck. It was CrossFit as a live fire exercise, and any soldier with half a brain knows to train as you fight.

Click to continue…. 

Submitted by Team RWB Buffalo

Team RWB Buffalo and a few individuals from Rochester, recently had the honor of volunteering for the New York State Special Olympic Summer Games.  We were responsible for the scorekeeping of the throwing games, the softball toss and the turbo-jav throw, but most importantly, we were the cheerleaders.

To get out and compete is never an easy task.  It takes weeks, months, or even years of training.  There is the fear of failure, the agony of defeat, but also the joy of winning or even just finishing.  Boundaries get pushed, lifestyles change, and in the end, each of us finds our true strength.  Our families and friends encourage us to keep pushing and to reach our goals; for the Special Olympics competitors, it is no different.  They needed cheering, encouragement and a little bit of coaching that day, and we were happy to help.  We made sure they knew every throw was their best yet and that we were proud of them for competing.

The pure heart the competitors displayed throughout the day overshadowed any competitive spirit they may have harbored in their hearts.  While each man and woman wanted to medal, they were just as happy when a friend or fellow teammate from their region held that honor.  We were also able to help turn some frowns into smiles after a bad throw.  We cheered just as loudly for those who threw 10 feet or all the way to the fence.  Those cheers and a little bit of coaching enabled the competitors to throw even farther their next attempt.  Never underestimate the power of having something to aim for either.  We would tell them to aim for one of us out in the field, and sure enough the Eagle on the field would have to duck!

Team RWB was changed for the better that day.  We weren’t there for us.  We were there for them.  We were there to help them succeed. Looking through some of the Facebook posts from our members from Saturday, I see such inspiring and happy notes:

“You have not lived a perfect day in your life until you have helped a complete stranger.”

“Every one of these men and women have an incredible outlook on life reveling in joy after a great performance!  You guys rock and I am so happy I had the chance to volunteer at the 2014 Special Olympics summer games!”

“What great day today helping at the Special Olympics! I have been saying I’d do this for years, yet I’ve never done it.  So happy Team RWB got me out there today…definitely won’t be my last time.  So very inspirational!”

If your chapter or community is fortunate enough to have the Special Olympics come to your region, definitely make the effort to volunteer.  The organizers were so very grateful for our help and we are so grateful to Team RWB for establishing this relationship across our nation.  The Special Olympics relies on volunteers to staff the events, so every man and woman counts.  Take a day, get inspired and see the world through a new set of eyes.  Remember, if you don’t feel better at the end of the day, you did it wrong.