Written by: Judy Gentz

Mother of Capt Joel Gentz, KIA 6/9/10

Major Mike Erwin attended my son’s calling hours. He had never met Joel, nor had he ever met our family.  Mike was a graduate student at U of M, and came in his dress uniform to pay his respects to a local fallen American soldier.  Mike had read about Joel in the paper, and knew that he was an avid runner. During his visit that day, Mike asked if he and an Army buddy could dedicate an ultra marathon they were planning in Joel’s memory.  That October, our younger son, Jared, ran 54 miles side-by-side with Mike Erwin, his Army friend Mike Adkyns, and several other people in the M-1 Joel C Gentz Ultra Marathon.  This was Team RWB’s first official event…and it was amazing. A bit of money was raised, but more importantly awareness was raised about the thousands of American troops with visible and invisible injuries whose need for civilian partners in their reintegration was huge.

My needs at that time were also huge.  I needed information, support, reassurance…and most of the time I really didn’t even know what I needed. My emotional pain at times seemed unbearable.  The grief from the loss of one’s child is beyond description.  The following February I made a visit to Nellis AFB, and Aggie agreed to meet me. I anxiously drove to his home wondering what it would be like to meet one of the men who survived the crash that took my son.  Aggie was able to answer simple questions and offer reassurance that the USAF could not, because he was there. He was gentle, kind and understanding.  I told him about the Ultra-marathon, and he told me how much he hoped he’d run again. I shared with Aggie about Team RWB and their aim to partner civilians with injured vets.

On March 1st I drove to the Detroit Airport to pick up MSgt Christopher “Aggie” Aguilera. Aggie came for a weekend visit, to meet my husband and son, and to help promote Team Red, White and Blue in our community. I want to share very briefly how important Aggie is to me and my family, and how Team Red, White and Blue gave me the courage to seek Aggie out.

Aggie has allowed us to share our grief with him and he has shared his with us. I hope that our relationship helps to ease some of the guilt Aggie is left with. His surviving the crash has been a ray of light in our darkest times. My younger son spent a lot of time with Aggie. This really helped him acknowledge painful feelings of longing for Joel…his older brother. Aggie offered brotherhood to Jared, and to my husband and myself, Aggie has allowed us to “adopt” him. I look forward to him meeting our daughter someday soon, and he and his wife being a part of our extended family.

I know Aggie is not Joel, so there’s no pretending of a replacement here. But, I feel very strongly that Joel would want us to have a relationship with Aggie, who suffered multiple injuries and is alive by a miracle of sorts. I also think Joel would dive into Team Red, White and Blue head first.  As a Combat Rescue Officer his job was to meet the needs of combat wounded, and I am certain he would view caring for the wounded veterans at home in the same way.

The pain in my heart is indescribable at times…the yearning to hear Joel’s voice, to get that awesome AF hug. Nothing really makes that go away. But, during those other moments, I think about veterans in need here in the U.S.  These men and women who have pain that may be emotional, physical or both.  I know that having a connection with Aggie, and supporting the efforts of Team RWB in this way is exactly what Joel would want.  It brings me a sense of love and compassion.   These are the feelings of a mother…and that’s who I am, now with a Gold Star pin to wear.

On Saturday, March 10th over 50 Team Red, White & Blue (TRWB) veterans, athletes and supporters ran together through Syracuse’s Tipperary Hill in the 7th Annual Shamrock Run. The group participated in the event to raise awareness for Team Red, White & Blue’s mission: to enrich the lives of wounded veterans and their families.

The runners, wearing red shirts emblazoned with a blue and white eagle on the front, proudly carried two American flags throughout the four mile course. TRWB is a non-profit organization that helps wounded veterans reintegrate into society.  A common method of connecting members of the community is through the shared interest of physical fitness. The Shamrock Run was a great opportunity to forge new relationships while strengthening existing friendships among community advocates and over 20 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans participating in the event.

Following this year’s record setting race, featuring over 3,000 runners, a group of over 40 Team Red, White & Blue members gathered at a local restaurant to socialize and network.  Some talked of the race being their first run in months while others shared stories about their experiences in the military.  Team Red, White & Blue athlete and advocate Nick Armstrong commented, “This was all about getting veterans and their supporters out in public to strengthen relationships and build a genuine connection to their community.  Creating that sense of belonging is what transition to civilian life is all about and the great turnout we had is just another positive reflection on the successful efforts of the Team RWB CNY Chapter and the generosity of the City of Syracuse and surrounding areas.”

To learn more about future athletic events and an upcoming Chief’s baseball game in the spring, or to learn how to get involved with Team RWB’s Upstate New York Chapter, contact [email protected].

It was below zero at dawn last Sunday with the sun shining brightly over the Adirondack Mountains. Later that morning at the World Cup Championships Steve Holcomb slid to a first place finish in the Night Train, his sled emblazoned with the Team Red, White, & Blue decal front and center for all to see. He greeted the overwhelming cheers and screams of the crowd at Lake Placid like a champion; another chapter written in a promising and remarkable bobsled career. A week after winning the two-man gold at the world championships Holcomb secured the four-man, easily besting the top two German sleds.

Holcomb and his crew of Justin Olsen, Steve Langton and Curt Tomasevicz had a four-run total of 3 minutes, 36.83 seconds — a full half-second in front of silver medalist Maximilian Arndt. Defending world champion Manuel Machata of Germany took the bronze, trailing Holcomb by 0.80 seconds. This was the second gold in four-man at worlds for Holcomb.  His first victory was at Lake Placid in 2009, and his triumph last week in two-man was a first for the United States at worlds since two-man began in 1931.

Among the crowds cheering him on that weekend were injured veterans, members of the USO staff based out of Fort Drum, and Team Red White and Blue volunteers and directors. The vets were invited by Team Red, White, & Blue (TRWB) and treated to a weekend of community and fellowship – a brief respite and an opportunity to cheer on TRWB Ambassador and gold medal champion, Steve Holcomb.

Photo by Pat Hendrick

Here is what AW2 and Triathlete Jim Wilkes said about the event:

Veterans, wounded service members, caretakers, family members, caseworkers, Team RWB volunteers, and advocates broke away from their daily routines to strengthen and create new relationships through an unparralleled experience. The trip, coordinated by New York State Team Red, White, & Blue chapter lead, veteran, and former Army Captain Mark Erwin, along with the support of the USO was environmentally cold, but emotionally warm.  This warmth was fueled by a commonality that existed in the group, and allowed for an ease of interaction.  Not only were we sharing a current experience, but most in attendance had also  traveled a cold hard path of adversity.  Some were at the beginning of the adversity spectrum, while others had traveled its windy rough path for quite some time. However this gave us the ability to lower barriers usually erected for outsiders, and freely relate to one another.  For me it created a learning experience on how not to overwhelm others in communicating how I overcame various hindrances to become a tri-athlete.

Interaction was the key element of the weekend.  Everyone had a friendly and personal interaction with every other individual present.  The atmosphere was not that of a corporate or military structured environment, but one of a team.  If a single individual was looking for a spotlight, there wasn’t one to be found; however, if someone needed assistance, AW2 or USO information, or warm clothing for the frigid Adirondack air – they received it, no questions asked.  Meeting everyone on the first night, interacting with many past and current Olympic athletes and their families, and meeting Steve Holcomb and the crew of USA 1 after they won gold was something my family and I will never forget.