Blog written by: Kevin Rosenblum, Triathlon Coordinator, Richmond, VA

Our bus rolled out of the hotel parking lot just as the sun was starting to break in the West Texas sky. The relative expanse of Waco soon gave way to small towns and rolling prairie broken up by cattle fences and mesquite trees. The bus was quiet; most of us letting the caffeine from the morning coffee work its magic. All 34 of us, 17 Post 9/11 veterans and our guests, perked up as the bus took a right turn onto the dirt road that led to Prairie Chapel Ranch. We moved through the Secret Service checkpoint and drove up to the helipad covered in large white tents packed with mountain bikes. The crowd gathered around our bus and broke into cheers as we stepped off. The 2015 W100K was about to begin.

The W100K is an annual three-day mountain bike ride hosted by former President George W. Bush (and the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative) at his ranch in Texas. Each year, a small group of Post 9/11 veterans who have been wounded in combat are chosen to ride with the President, and offered the opportunity to share in the camaraderie of service and the mutual love of the sport of mountain biking. The aim of the ride is to highlight the service of Post 9/11 veterans and to bring attention to the resiliency of all veterans, particularly ones that have suffered both visible and invisible wounds.

The experience is surreal. It’s not every day you get to ride mountain bikes with a former President of the United States. President Bush rides every kilometer, usually hard, and always at the front. He relishes in the chance to connect with the men and women he once led. As cool as it is to meet and ride with the President, what really struck me was the bond between the riders and our guests (mostly spouses or close family and friends). On Thursday we arrived as individuals, and by the end of the first day’s ride we were already a team.

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As a busy adult with a family, I don’t get to engage with the team as much as I’d like these days, but it doesn’t mean I don’t still feel connected. It’s that feeling of connection, within Team RWB and beyond, that has been the most important factor in my transition. When I first got out of the Army I thought I could go it alone. I didn’t want anything to do with the military or veteran community. In fact, I didn’t really want anything to do with any community. It took me a while to realize that my monastic lifestyle was not going to lead to the fulfilling life I’d hoped for. I needed to put myself out there if I wanted any shot of making a successful transition to civilian life. It was difficult at first. I still wore the mental armor I’d built up from my time in service, but as I’ve grown older and more removed from those days I’ve found it easier to take some of it off. It can be a hard thing to do, to be vulnerable, but it means that you get to form real, meaningful connections with people. Those connections are what make the good days better and the bad days seem shorter. They are what separate me from who I am now and who I was in 2009 when I was walled off and alone. Even eight years on, I think I’m still transitioning in some regards, and there are still moments of struggle. Moments when the armor goes up and I withdraw, but I also know that there are supportive people in my life who I can turn to for help and understanding.

It’s been over a year and a half since I first rode the W100K and I think I’m still processing what it means to me. Since then I’ve been back to the ranch as an alumni rider and gotten to see most of the friends I made in 2015, as well as make new ones. Reinforcing these relationships is the most important part for the W100K to me. There’s also the incredible honor of having my portrait painted by the President and being included in his new book, Portraits of Courage. The collection of paintings is beautiful and speaks to the unique relationships the President has built with each of the veterans portrayed in the book. I’m incredibly grateful for these experiences and my biggest take away is a continuation of what I’ve come to realize since I left the military; cherish the relationships in your life. It’s the people in our lives that make it worth living, and I’m lucky enough to have some great ones in mine.

Blog written by: Erin Buckley

I have always cherished and valued family, so having it fall apart almost a year ago nearly ruined me. July of 2015, my father went to prison for sexual and physical crimes he committed against me and two others. Our family was fractured and I was completely devastated.  I was diagnosed with PTSD and for the first time, I got an inside look on why my veteran husband (who also has PTSD) struggles the way he does. I wanted nothing more than to sit inside my house, in my room, with the lights off in the fetal position wishing that it would all end. I was withdrawn from society, withdrawn from my family, and was constantly untrusting and afraid.

A few months later my mother encouraged me to come cheer my step dad on while he participated in the Twin Cities Marathon. It was so inspiring; being in the outdoors again, feeling the sun on my face, admiring strangers cheering on strangers, smiling at other supporters as they passed, and playing with my daughter in the grass while we looked for “grandpa.” I left knowing I needed a change.
I joined a local gym and began running. One night I decided to join the 7pm Wednesday session at my gym, when in walked three guys. Three LOUD but exciting guys. Guys whose fun loving and excited personality reminded me of who I used to be. Before the trauma. Noticing the word veteran on the back of their bright red shirts, I asked who they were and what their shirts meant. This is the moment that changed my life. I joined Team RWB that same evening after joining these Eagles for dinner.
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Through the amazing energetic Eagles, who were always there to encourage and have fun, I found myself wanting to go out more and more. To be around these people and their positive energy. I found myself trusting complete strangers again, knowing we were all coming together with a common purpose, to enrich each other’s lives through social and physical activity.
Team RWB saved my life and allowed me to help and love others again. It has brought us together with a common bond. Breaking the antisocial barriers that technology is creating to cure our ails with the most powerful force: human connection! 
 
I now feel back to my happy, energetic, and outgoing self. Team RWB came into my life when I needed it most.  While I joined initially to help others, I feel My life has been changed by them! I now have a new family in Team RWB. My Eagle family loves me unconditionally as I am, they encourage me to be my best self, and they enrich my life in the best of ways. 
 
With the loss of family members, and finding new family in my RWB Team, I decided to give back to complete the circle. I stepped up as Volunteer Family Events Coordinator, organizing and creating family friendly events for Team RWB Twin Cities. I have finally found purpose and joy in my life again, and to Team RWB, I am eternally grateful.

Blog written by: Amy Bushatz

If there is one thing I know to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt it is this: stories matter.

When we tell our stories, we offer those around us the chance to connect with our experiences and understand who we are. When we listen to someone else’s story, we show them they are important, that their experiences matter and that who they are and what they’ve done means something.

Our stories are what give us our humanity, and they are what connect us with other people. Stories are the essence of the human experience.

When I first heard Sebastian Junger speak on the Eagle Nation podcast about veteran town halls, the idea planted itself in my soul and wouldn’t let go. The concept was simple: invite veterans into a local town hall space on Veterans Day and ask them to spend up to 10 minutes speaking about the emotional experience of service. Invite community members to listen.

Only veterans may speak at the town hall, the idea goes. There are no questions, no commentary, no politics — just stories, just connection. Through those stories, Junger suggested, the community has a chance to connect with its veteran neighbors, and veterans have a way to connect to their communities.

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As if it were a moral mandate, I knew the town hall was something we absolutely had to do through Team RWB Anchorage. If we, as a Team, say that connecting veterans with their communities is a major part of our mission and if I believe that stories matter, what better way to show it than host a town hall?

So that’s what we did. We didn’t hold our town hall on Veterans Day — there are enough parades, ceremonies and free food options that day to fill up anyone’s calendar. Instead, we rented a community meeting space for the Sunday after Veterans Day. We advertised the event with local newspapers, radio and TV stations. We posted flyers in every conceivable location. We talked about the town hall with every single person we met.

Our reward was a showing of over 50 people, including part of a troop of American Heritage Girls who wanted to volunteer and hear stories, too.

As five veterans spoke I heard them discuss the “why” behind their service, the emotional toll that war brought and what homecoming meant. The voices of these warriors quivered with emotion as they revealed pieces of themselves that they never show anyone, they told us.

The audience sat quietly taking it all in. When our speakers were done and no one else wanted to talk, we closed the hour.

“Today veterans of all wars had a chance to address their community directly and without intermediaries,” our emcee read from closing remarks. “As a guest or speaker, you took part in a community ceremony that returns the experience of war to our entire community, rather than just leaving it to the people who fought. Not only is this vets town hall tremendously beneficial to veterans, but it may help bring communities and even the entire country together as well.”

We know that it did.

 

Photo Credit to: Jason Rouch for Team RWB Anchorage

Blog written by: Caroline Angel

One of America’s most beloved symbols of our freedom and pride in our great nation is the American Flag, our “Old Glory”. Thousands of Great American’s have sacrificed defending what our flag represents, the courage, strength, and values of the American people.  Anyone who has had the honor to carry the American flag, especially to symbolically represent solidarity at a community event, does so with great privilege. Carrying the flag gives you the sense that you are capable of living up to the best in yourself and our Country.

At Team Red, White & Blue, a 111,000 member veteran service organization, we know a lot about what it means to be impassioned by carrying the American Flag.  At nearly every athletic event we attend, we carry the flag with us. Veterans, active duty servicemembers, and civilians come together, united under the banner of Old Glory, to share life enriching experiences that promote health, build genuine relationships, and ignite a sense of purpose. Right now, on a national scale, we are doing just that. Team RWB and presenting sponsor, Microsoft, have partnered together to realize the Old Glory Relay: 62 teams will carry a single American Flag 4,216 miles from Seattle, WA to Tampa, FL to raise awareness and support for veterans transitioning from military service. We know that when we do this it means so much to America. We know that when we do this it uplifts our spirits. We know that when we do this it evokes patriotism in our neighborhoods. Community members salute, offer thanks, give nods of appreciation, clap, take pictures, stop us to shake our hands or offer an exalted “Oorah” or “Woo Hoo!” It is part of our RWB Ethos to bring this kind of inspiration and elevation to our communities. It is part of our Ethos to extend this joy, honor, and opportunity to each and every American.

We also know what impact carrying the flag has had on Team RWB members, and we want to share that with you. Based upon the responses to our recent 2016 survey of Team RWB veterans, active duty military, and civilians, those members of the Team who carry the flag at Team RWB events are 1.7 times more likely to experience increased life enrichment, 1.5 times more likely to feel part of something bigger than themselves, and 1.3 times more likely to feel inspired than those who don’t carry the flag. Veterans who carry the flag are 2.2 times more likely to feel connected to civilians and civilians who carry the flag are 1.3 times more likely to feel connected to veterans.

As we seek unity and belonging at this time in our country, we invite you to come with us on our journey— across America in our Old Glory Relay, or in your local community, carrying the flag in your local 5k or other event.

For connection, camaraderie and support of a United America, please join us—one step at a time—let’s carry our flag together.

Blog written by:  Terrance Gant; Team Red, White & Blue Phoenix

I walked into the Yoga Leadership Camp a little skeptical about what was going to happen and how I was going to feel.  I mean… it’s yoga for crying out loud. But boy, was I in for a surprise.

Georgina started it off with a talk about being authentic, and her “why” for joining Team Red, White & Blue.  It really was a great way to start off the weekend because it immediately set the tone.  During her talk, I silently whispered to myself, “You better not cry.”  So much for the positive self talk.  Before I knew it, the first day was ending with some calming yoga and a group dinner.  After dinner is when things got serious.

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All the Eagles sat in a circle, and Georgina asked who wanted to share their story.  I shyly raised my hand, and the tears began to well up in my eyes.  I’ve told my story a few times in a couple different programs, but this would be the first time I would share it with someone without a military background.  My story goes something like this:

I joined the military back in 1998 under peace time.  It was so fun that on my first West Pacific deployment on the USS Pelieliu, all we did was a couple training operations and a ton of liberty in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.  I was on my second deployment when my life would dramatically change.  While on liberty in Darwin, Australia, September 11th happened.  I would go on to deploy to Afghanistan twice and Iraq three times in an 8 year period.  In 2009, I was injured and had to make a decision to move laterally to a different position or separate from the Marine Corps entirely.  I couldn’t imagine being anything other than an infantry man and leading Marines in combat.  If I couldn’t do that then I didn’t want to do anything, so I got out after 12 years of service.  That’s when the wheels started to fall off.  I found myself drinking heavily – not your normal 6-12 pack of beer, but a fifth or pint of vodka a night just to sleep without nightmares.  I was neglecting my family and ended up destroying my relationship with my ex-wife and children.   I ended up losing everything, wife, kids, and job.  I ended up homeless for three months wondering how to put my life back together.

The drinking got worse as well as my social skills.  On February 15, 2015 I tried to end my life.  My girlfriend at the time, who now has become my wife, said that I needed to get help, if not for myself than for the sake of my children.  There, the dark journey into my own soul began.  After attending numerous counselling sessions with the VA – both group and individual – I enrolled in a program called Save A Warrior (SAW).  Here, the light bulb came on.  Once I was done with SAW, I came home thinking, “What now?” Now that I have done the internal work what’s the external work?

A while later, I saw some people running with red shirts on, so I went home and Googled them and found out it was Team RWB. I signed up and, at first, just participated from afar.  When I was finally talked into doing the Tempe International Triathlon, I was hooked.  The camaraderie, es sprit de corps, and brotherhood was that missing external piece that I had been looking for.  Since then, I have jumped into the team head first and haven’t looked back.  Being the Veteran Engagement Coordinator has been the most fulfilling position I have held since separating from the Marine Corps.

I finished telling my story and there was a hush over the camp participants.  Throughout the weekend I would hear stories that even though they weren’t exactly like mine, they were stories of pain, hurt, and unfulfillment in lives.  The same thing I was encountering, just in a different manner.  What I learned that weekend at Yoga Leadership Camp can’t be taught in school.  Be authentic to yourself, genuine to others, and always have empathy and compassion because you don’t know that person’s’ story.  We all have a story to share and when we are authentic with it and genuinely in tune with others stories, we can begin to build stronger, more loving communities and Nation.