By David Chrisinger
There are two primary reasons why I recently started a chapter of Team Red, White, and Blue in Central Wisconsin. First and foremost, Team RWB believes that people like me — a “non-prior-service civilian” — can and should play a pivotal roll in welcoming back our veterans and helping them not only connect with their communities, but also lead extraordinary and purposeful lives.
You might not realize this, but about 20-30 percent of Team RWB’s 66,000+ members are “non-prior-service civilians,” which is a somewhat clunky way of saying that they have never served in the military. When I joined Team RWB almost two years ago, I was surprised that joining was even an option. After all, I can’t think of many other organizations that not only serve veterans, but also are welcoming to civilians.
“Most of the civilian members join for a couple of main reasons,” Joe Quinn, the Northeast Regional Director, told me. “They either have a connection to the military and want to help veterans, or they’re really physically active and want to give veterans something more than a handshake: their time and friendship.”
Or they’re both.
As the grandson of a WWII combat veteran who struggled mightily to return to civilian life, I know all too well how combat trauma and its aftereffects can negatively reverberate through the generations of a family.
The second — and perhaps most important — reason I started a chapter of Team RWB is that I am tired of seeing many the 45,000+ organizations that serve veterans depict them as mentally and physically broken, in need of our sympathy and charity. There are, of course, some veterans who face significant challenges in their transition home — my grandfather was one of them 70 years ago.
What Team RWB does, however, is provide veterans the opportunity to show that they can rise to the occasion — that they have found strength in struggle, wisdom in sorrow, and courage in conflict.
There’s no doubt that our country is going through some trying times right now — as a student of history, I know that most of our country’s history has been troubled in some way, shape, or form. Still, I rest easy at night knowing that there are millions of people around the country — including the dozens of veterans I have worked with in the last five years — who are using their strength, wisdom, and courage to make a difference here at home.
Over the next few years, an estimated 1 million military service members will undertake that long walk home. Some of these folks might need help fighting the battles that can pop up along the way. Rest easy: Team RWB stands ready to help veterans and their families make the most of that transition. I’m both honored and excited to now be a small part of that journey.
If you’re a “non-prior-service veteran” and you want to help veterans, give Team RWB a try, and if you’re a veteran, I can’t think of a better way to connect with your community and show them what you’re made of.
It’s not lonely at the top when you fly with eagles!
One of the many reasons I love Team RWB is because I love working with people and witnessing them achieve the impossible; whether it be seeing them finish their first 5k, or setting a personal best. I truly believe that you can do anything you set your mind and heart to do. I have always found fitness as a way to calm my mind, as well as challenge myself both physically and mentally. I love setting goals, achieving them, and setting more goals.
When I enlisted in the Army I had Airborne school in my contract, something about jumping out of planes fascinated me and I have always been an adrenaline junky. In 2001, I was stationed at Ft. Bragg and had a very bad landing from an Airborne jump. I remember landing on my tail-bone and having the wind knocked out of me. I laid there for several minutes getting myself together and trying to find the strength to get on my feet. Since that day, my health has never been the same. (I was also diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at 19 while in the Army; another reason I want to stay healthy.) I have struggled with chronic back pain and have been diagnosed with two herniated discs, sciatica, and degenerative disc disease. I also struggle with depression because my service-connected injury severely limits my daily activities and being able to keep up with my active sons. I literally have to sit on my bathroom counter to get ready in the morning and take breaks when cleaning house. After years of being in denial of the severity of my injury, it wasn’t until I ran the JFK50 that my back took a turn for the worse. I went to the doctor and they told me that I needed to stop running and it is was not a matter of “if” I will need surgery… but rather “when.”
It has been extremely tough not to run like I used to, the temptation is always there, but I have to keep reminding myself that we only have one body and need to take care of it. I refuse to sit around and have a pity-party, and rather choose to make something positive from a negative circumstance. This has forced me to discover other avenues of fitness that fulfill me and challenge me. I’ve always enjoyed lifting weights but never really did it for max weight until recently and I enjoy the constant challenge of improving and setting new PRs.
A couple months ago another DC Eagle, Rupa Dainer, and I decided to do our first USAPL Bench-press competition together. (We are both avid runners with injuries). I placed first in my weight class on March 21st and I plan to register for at least three more competitions this year and am going to recruit some Eagles to do it with me! I would love to see more ladies try power-lifting as well, and I plan to share and teach what I have experienced with other members of Team RWB to encourage folks to step outside their comfort zone and try something new. No matter what our obstacles are in life, we must not let it define us… but rather use it as an opportunity to seek other opportunities for development and triumphs.
Mona Espinosa, National Athletic Leader – DC Chapter
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”