Hi, my name is Frank Sulzer and I joined Team RWB in September, 2014. I was getting ready to run the Steelers 5k run in Pittsburgh, PA, when I noticed a female carrying the American flag. Her name is Kate Nemec Bielak. I asked her if I could get a picture with her and told her I run in memory of Gerard P. Dewan from FDNY ladder 3 who was killed on 9 /11. Kate asked me if I was in the military and I said no. She told me about Team RWB and handed me her card, and after the 5k run I went home and looked up the Team RWB website.
I was so inspired by the stories I read, so I made the decision to join Team RWB. At first I felt out of place because I’m a firefighter and I have never been in the military, but once I joined the team and met some of the members from Team RWB Western Pa I realized they all treated me like family. The teamwork that Team RWB shows is so inspiring. It was a true honor for me to be part of the Team RWB Coast to Coast Relay. On my leg of the relay, I ran it in full fire-gear and air-pack, which came with its challenges. During my part of the relay I twisted my ankle. I realized the meaning of teamwork when a fellow team member Sean, got out of the support vehicle and finished my part of the relay. I’ve accomplished many 5k runs in different cities and states, but nothing compares to running this race with a “family”.
To give some background information, I am 40 years old and have been in the fire department for 25 years and still counting. After 9/11 occurred, I found out my cousin married a family member of a FDNY firefighter that was killed in the World Trade Center. So in his memory, I started doing 9/11 memorial stair climbs. We climb 110 floors in full fire-gear and air-packs. We also carry tools, extra bottles, and hose lines just like they did on 9/11. I do 4 to 5 stair climbs a year. Last year I thought I would do something different so I started to do 5k runs in full fire-gear and air-pack. So far in 2014 I have done 13 5k runs in full fire-gear and air-pack. On my helmet, jacket and air-pack I have decorated it with decals in memory of Gerard P. Dewan and FDNY firefighters killed on 9 / 11.
In September I was so honored to join Team RWB because it taught me many things. For example, I thought only the military can get diagnosed with PTSD. In January 2014, I found out I had PTSD from being in the fire department, which is something I don’t share very often. I was 17 years old when I was involved in my first bad accident. I was on my way to the firehouse when we got the call stating, “a car rollover with entrapment”. We all tried to rescue the man from the burning car, but had no luck and the car caught on fire. At that point we had to back off for our own safety, but the sights and sounds from the accident affect me to this day. Later when we got back to the firehouse, I found out he was one our own firemen from my station. That experience never left me, this many years later it’s still a constant thought. Being part of Team RWB has helped me a lot because I can always depend on someone.
Since joining Team RWB, I still doing my 9/11 memorial stair climbs and a lot of 5k runs. Last year I was asked to hold the American Flag for the National Anthem for the Biggest loser 5k run in Erie, Pa and DC. which was a huge honor. Last year I joined a group called, Code 3 For A Cure Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to raise money for fellow firefighters suffering from cancer by doing different kinds of runs in full gear. Both Team RWB and Code 3 For A Cure have given me so many opportunities to better myself and positively belong to team that I can always depend on.
My name is William Bo Hagaman and I am the Veteran Outreach Director for Team RWB Lock Haven-Williamsport. Just out of high school, I quickly realized that I wasn’t ready for college and I would rather serve my country, just as my step father, Larry Boyce had. I joined the Army 13November1989 and left for basic training on the 29th of the same month. I was deployed to my first active duty station in Bamberg Germany in June of 1990, just before Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. In December 1990 we were deployed to the Gulf and I quickly found myself in the middle of the deserts of Saudi Arabia, living a mostly boring day to day life of work and training.
During my time in the desert I suffered a back injury doing my daily job as a Light Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic. I went and saw the Dr. and was told that there was nothing wrong with me. I went back to the day to day of life. Once the Gulf War was over I was sent from Germany to Ft. Stewart in Georgia. It was here that my back injury quickly took over my life. Because the 24th Infantry Division was a quick reactionary force, training on a day to day basis was much more strenuous and it became apparent that my back would not let me do what I needed to do. I visited the TMC (troop medical clinic) 9 times with my back hurting, not able to walk without pain, not able to do anything physical without extreme pain, I was told there was nothing wrong with me, given Motrin, and told to never come back.
I left active duty in November 1993, unable to continue to do my job. I joined the National Guard and married the same month. Leaving active duty I sought help from outside Dr.’s and it was quickly found that I had herniated a disk in my back and that because I was allowed to keep working and doing PT, I now had extreme damage to the area and the vertebrae were now sliding around and causing the pain. I made it without surgery until February 1995, the VA had quickly taken over my medical treatment when they found out what had happened on active duty. The VA operated, they totally removed the disk at L4-L5 and put in rods and screws to hold my spine together. It was 2 years before I was allowed to do anything, I went back to school.
I retrained in school as a computer geek and quickly got a job in my field with some close friends who knew my situation and were willing to help me. In 2002, I began having serious pain again in my back, this time I made it to 2006 before more surgery was needed. This time they removed the disk at S1-L5 and put longer rods and screws in to hold my spine together. I now had lost movement in my back from S1-L3, the length of the rods. I never really recovered from this surgery. I went back to work in January 2007, never fully able to do my job again, I made it until September 2008 before I could no longer work at all.
My home life quickly broke down and so did I. I had 3 boys by this time and I was unable to do much with them at all, nothing physical. During this time I was on 18-22 different medications a day, I had many more operations while they tried to figure out what was wrong with me and I suffered with major bouts of depression. In October 2010, I divorced my wife of 16 years, my boys’ alternated time between myself and my ex. When my kids were with me life was somewhat normal and I could pass as normal, when I was alone I drank often and a lot, my depression became severe and many times I contemplated suicide, I could no longer deal with life. My counselor suggested I find a hobby, I began taking photos of running races and bike races.
At the Remember Boston run in Lock Haven in 2013, I ran into some people I knew who were veterans from the area running in the race. They introduced me around and I became friends with the folks from Team Fear the Kilt. The Team changed to Team RWB not long after I began spending time with them. I joined Team RWB in October 2013, the same month I had my 10th operation on my back. I quickly transitioned from shooting any races to trying to find and shoot races where Team RWB had the most impact. I had gone from being alone in the world to finding and being part of a family again, I began to feel again like life had meaning. I began to walk on Sunday’s with the team at the Fun Runs and started doing anything I could with the people of Team RWB.
In February 2014 the Chapter Captain, Sean MacMillan asked me to be the team Veteran Outreach Director and I accepted, knowing that this would be difficult because of my physical situation. I began talking to anyone I could about the team and getting the word out about what Team RWB had to offer veterans and community members alike. For the first time since I was on Active duty, I belonged to something I believed in and wanted to spread the word, I also was finding that I could do more physically and needed much less pills to do it. I began to be able to walk further and further the more I walked, I bought a bike and for the first time in 15 years was able to ride. My teammates did nothing but encourage me and help me do better and I wanted to be better. In July 2014, I began to run, not without a lot of pain still, but with Team RWB behind me I felt I could be better. I signed up for my first 5k, The Dandelion Trail Run to be run August 20th, 2014. With a lot of help, I set my sights on a time of 45 minutes for the run. With teammates Sean MacMillan, Bill Bechdel,, and Jennifer Forshey running at my side the entire time, I finished in 44:41…it was the most amazing thing I have done in my life.
I no longer have to drink to sleep, to keep the nightmares at bay, I am now taking just 4 pills a day, I haven’t considered suicide seriously in a long time, and I now do everything I can with my Team RWB family. I still have a lot of problems, but I no longer feel that they can keep me down because I am no longer just myself, I am part of a team and a team is much stronger than an individual!
“I joined the Army in 2008. I was part of that time where everything went fast. Basic training for 9 weeks, Advanced Individual Training for 7 months, then a few weeks off. Next, a month at the National Training Center in California, a few weeks back, and then Iraq. Throw in a marriage, my parents’ divorce, and the loss of my grandfather. It was fast, and it was different.
I spent the better part of a year in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, from October 2009 to October 2010. After we returned home, the year took its toll. I had lost people I had come to know as family. I developed an intense drinking problem. I had disciplinary issues as well as a run in with the law. My marriage fell apart and my life went on a downward spiral. I got demoted and was forced to finish out my enlistment in the Army Substance Abuse Program. Things didn’t look good for me on the outside and in 2012 I left the Army Honorably just before I was forced out.
At this point, I’m 315lbs (Not in the good way) and I have a massive drinking problem. I find out that my ex-wife and my NCO are having a kid together. My mind is lost to the stress and I am contemplating a way out. I talk to friends and family but they don’t understand. I find myself missing Iraq. Missing the stress and anger that consumes you and makes you numb to the outside. Suicide is beginning to seem like the only release and honestly, I was only seconds away on more than one occasion. Somehow, I push through. I hear about an event called the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. I had lost my mother to breast cancer as a child so I decided 39.3 miles was inconsequential compared to the benefit. That decision changed my life. On May 3rd, 2013, we began our walk at the Washington Memorial. I meet a Marine Veteran and we chat. We are going through the same issues. Hours of talking makes me feel better. Someone who actually gets me, who understands the struggle. Then someone walks up to me. She looks at me and says “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but did you gentlemen say that you are veterans?” We proudly said we are. She said she wanted to tell us about an organization.
“Team RWB” she said. “Look us up.” She was wearing this bright red shirt with an awesome eagle on the front. I asked her who they were and she explained. She told me how they were a group that is mostly, but not entirely, comprised of veterans. She told me their goal is to help veterans get back to civilian life through physical and social activities. She told me the website and the next day I checked them out. That Tuesday was the beginning of the return of Adam Silver. I went to my first event, a run group in Alexandria, VA. This was the closest to home for me. Within minutes of my arrival I was accepted with open arms. Within days I had people to speak to. People that actually could relate to me through themselves, or through others. They gave me what I missed in the Army. The brotherhood, the family, the stress-free environment that people always have my back.
Fast forward to today. I have been with RWB for just 5 short months. It has changed my life. I’m down to 260lbs, and solid at that. I work out 7 times a week. I have run a 5k, a 10k, finished out Anna Runs America in Manhattan, and conquered a Tough Mudder, Nation’s Triathlon, and the Army Ten Miler. My psyche has never been better. I was recently asked to be one of 2 Outdoor Events Coordinators for the largest RWB chapter in the country. I have been given the opportunity to sit on a panel and speak to a group of governmental interns on behalf of RWB. Hell, I’ll be participating in the Annapolis Half Marathon on November 22nd!
I have once again become an active and productive member of society. RWB has not only given me the opportunity, they have shown me the way. They are my brothers and my sisters. When I needed help training, they were there. When I got injured, they helped me recover. When I lost a great friend, mentor, and battle buddy, they took over as my battles and were there every step of the way. Most of them don’t even know that they did these things because they didn’t intend to, it’s just who they are, who we are.
We veterans tend to think we are badass. We have been to war and that somehow means that we are independent and invincible. We tend to forget that we went to war as part of a unit, part of a team. That team now, that my service is done, is Team RWB. We live the ethos that was so engrained in our brains while we served and we will never stop.
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
Thanks for listening. Thanks for being there. And thank you for your service. #eagleup”
Since joining RWB in November 2011, I’ve run a few 5Ks—always finishing last or close to it, and always feeling pretty bad about it afterward. After a particularly bad 5K in the fall of 2013, I actually cried and vowed to quit trying and to quit RWB. At that moment, Kirk Williams, RWB veteran, crossfitter, and great guy approached me, and in passing offered, “Just remember, you did more this morning than some people will do all day.” Those words stick with me to this day and have carried me more miles than I thought possible.
October 18, 2014, I ran my first half-marathon wearing The Eagle representing Team RWB. Why? I am not inspirational or special in any way. I am a middle-aged mother of four. I have never been athletically talented—even when I was younger and physically fit. When I picture inspirational people, I envision the men and women of Team RWB, who despite physical and psychological injuries are doing amazing things like crossfitting, trail running, ultra-running, and competing in triathlons.
So in what can only be described as a temporary loss of all reason, I decided in May of 2014 to run the Buffalo Creek Half-Marathon as a “gift” for my husband, Jason, for our 20th anniversary. With the backing of our children and with the support and guidance of my chapter captain, Kate Bielak, I embarked on a secret mission—preparing for a half-marathon. Slowly, a few other Eagles became part of my secret—Jeremiah Fountain, U. S. Army veteran, became my virtual training partner as he was training for the same race for his first half-marathon as well; and Sean MacMillen, U. S. Army veteran and chapter captain of Team RWB Lock Haven-Williamsport quickly provided encouragement and moral support from half-way across the state.
Two months away from the race, I e-mailed Kate to tell her I wanted to donate my half-marathon bib to a veteran. Despite her encouragement and rebuttal, I had my mind set. Before I knew it, I was Facebook messaging with Jeremiah who listened to my fears, shared my doubts, and reminded me that, “run, walk, or crawl” we were finishing that race. I knew Kate deployed the troops to rescue me, and I was grateful.
One month from the race, I was running a quarter of a mile with COL (ret.) James Nemec who let me know he had every intention of showing up to that half-marathon to make sure I finished the race, but family commitments conflicted; however, he knew I could do it. To address my concern about being “swept” off the trail for being too slow, I was told to just turn in my bib and tell them, “I’m just another person out for a run.” In running that short distance with “The Colonel,” I became more determined to finish. If The Colonel believed in me, I must be able to do it. For the first time since I started this journey, I believed I could do all 13.1 miles. I knew they wouldn’t be fast, I knew they wouldn’t be pretty, but they were going to be ours—mine and everyone else’s who stood in my corner!
For the first 7 miles, the bike sweepers rode just beyond my peripheral vision, but I could hear their wheels crunching, I could hear their conversations, and I felt like I was keeping them back. Sometimes they’d stop to let me get ahead, but they’d end up riding in the same place. Just as I was ready to tell them to pass me, the one asked if I had a ride back to get my car and would I be OK by myself. When I said I did and I would, they passed me and a HUGE burden was lifted. I was on my own—running for myself, for my support team, for Team Red, White, and Blue.
Suddenly the adventure was all about the personal challenge and the people who helped get me to this place in the woods. There was no doubt I was going to be last and wasn’t going to make the finish time, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t care about being last. I enjoyed every minute of last. I ran because Kirk Williams was in my head; I ran because The Colonel believed I could do it; I ran because Kate taught me it wasn’t about speed; I ran because Jeremiah Fountain believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
When I saw my personal finish line, I cried the rest of the way in. The being last didn’t matter. The getting lost didn’t matter. The finishing 15 minutes later than I anticipated, didn’t matter either. Feeling the love and support of those Eagles was all that mattered. Finishing something so beyond what I ever thought possible would never have happened without the backing of Team RWB—and that’s all that mattered.
The Year of the Eagle I always used to think that my spirit animal was a puppy. Thanks to our nation’s veterans, I now know for certain that it is an eagle.
This past year, I picked my whole life up and moved it to Washington, DC to work for Congress. My college roommates and I all moved to different corners of the country, I left my loving and supportive family in Ohio, and I found myself moving into a house I found, and now love, on Craiglist (my new roommates are lovely and are not murderers, don’t worry). I knew that I was moving far away from some very special people, but I was optimistic that I would make new friends in a new city.
I got lucky. What I found instead was a powerful community of veterans and civilians, meaningful connections with those who have served, and a renewed love for my country.
While I was finishing up my Master’s degree in political science, I became passively disenchanted with these United States and fell out of love with the country I was so fortunate to have grown up in. I felt disenfranchised from my country because I found that I didn’t quite understand it anymore. I questioned our role as a global power, I considered our foreign and domestic policies with way more than a single grain of salt, and I felt intimidated in the presence of those in uniform.
However, while I still consider our policies carefully and philosophize on our global role, as I believe all thoughtful citizens should do, I am no longer intimidated by those who serve our nation. The connections I have made with our veterans through organizations such as Team Red, White, and Blue have renewed my love for America, as I have learned that their actions are selfless, sacrificial, and for nothing but their love of country. It is sometimes hard for me to understand the intensity of that comradery, but this community of veterans invites me to share that value with them, and for that, I am a thankful, reflective, better person.
Alongside tens of thousands of veterans and civilians alike, this year I have completed marathons, half-marathons, triathlons, and fun runs, not to mention the 550+ miles I’ve ran in between. I’ve ran with Anna Runs America and held Old Glory on her last day across the country in the Old Glory Coast to Coast Relay. I have taken on leadership roles within my community as well as followed in the footsteps of those greater and braver than I. Thanks to the influence of our veterans, I am stronger, faster, and more resilient.
But more than that, I have been taught that veterans are the spine of our nation, and that civilians are critical to their reintegration into civilian life. It is vital that these counterparts work hand in hand, whether it is to solve our nation’s most pressing issues or carry our flag across a finish line. Together, veterans and civilians can help the American people fall back in love with their country.
I like to think of 2014 as the year of the eagle. Just as the military pledges to leave no soldier behind on the battlefield, we must leave no veteran behind when they return home. Thank you to the veterans who inspire me every single day, thank you to those who have taken me under their wing, and thank you to those within this community who believe in me, as well as push me to believe in myself. I am better because of you, and I hope to be better for you.
Team Red, White, & Blue, DMV
Outdoor Events Coordinator and DC Geographic Leader