Thomas Beers left the Army two years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For over a decade, he battled bouts of survivor’s remorse until he agreed to help lead a chapter of a veteran nonprofit organization few had ever heard of. Recently, Thomas handed off the reigns to one of the most successful chapters of Team Red, White, and Blue to a new set of leaders, and he’s hoping you might also have what it takes to accept the risk of leadership.

Blog written by Thomas Beers

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I am letting go…

I’m not leaving, just “letting go.”

And it is not easy…

I started going through old pictures on my Facebook page of when I first started running again, back in 2013, just after I had found Team RWB.

I was searching for motivation—something that made me run for a larger purpose. At the time, Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) was the only veteran group I knew about. I looked up WWP running groups on Facebook and found some guy in upstate New York, a dentist who had a “13.1 for Wounded Warriors” group. It was a cool little piece and I started to run around Cleveland—through a dentist in Rochester who was trying to raise money—so I could raise awareness of veteran issues.

Let me back up for a moment. I served in the Army for a brief time in the 1990’s and left in 1999. Like many other veterans, I was in a love-hate relationship with the Army. Uncle Sam and I parted as “just friends,” and then I started moving straight to another uniform: firefighter. A decade and a half later, I found myself wanting to get back into running to give back to those who served in the war that I “missed.” I had some demons about that…the failure to serve with my friends in combat. In a way, while I wanted to help through advocacy, I didn’t realize at the time that I was running to help me, too.

One day in 2013 I went back to the dentist’s Facebook group only to find what looked like a psychedelic stencil of an Eagle. I called the dentist and asked what this change was all about. He was between patients so the good doctor gave me a few minutes of talking points about Team RWB, a whole new group I had never heard about before. He told me he had run across (pun intended) them at some race in the Midwest. He gave me their address and I went to work.

I made some spreadsheets, picked some races, and began asking friends and family to “sponsor” me as I ran with a new shirt I received in the mail—a red Brooks brand tech shirt that I wore everywhere. I was the only Eagle I knew at the time. I was unaware how that name, Team RWB, was eventually going to consume my life.

After raising a few hundred dollars and sending the money I raised to Florida—and hosting push up contests in our fire station—I received an email from one “Blayne Smith” who informed me that there was a whole community of Eagles in Northeast Ohio and that I needed to become an “official member.” Apparently, they were scratching their heads wondering who “this dude” was and thought it best if I left the fringes of the organization and became an “official” Eagle.

I met Matt Kisil, the captain of the Cleveland Chapter, while he was putting together his leadership team. Matt asked if I was interested in giving a little more of my time and leadership to the chapter (technically a “community” in 2013 and 2014). I went home and thought about it. Matt wanted me to be a “Veterans Outreach Director.” It sounded fancy enough. Plus, I found out that they’d be giving me some cool business cards, so I accepted and began my Alice-in-Wonderland-style introduction to the world of Team RWB. I was also Matt’s “go to” for filling in as a chapter captain when he could not, making me a quasi-co-captain. The company “executive officer.”

I discovered that there were so many veterans who were clamoring for “something more,” who wanted to reignite the sense of camaraderie they lost after leaving the service. I learned of veterans who had sacrificed so much for the nation, and I learned that some of their wounds, the unseen ones especially, needed healing.

Thomas Beers

Thomas Beers

Never to be the type of person that does anything half-assed, I dove into the role of the new outreach director and began to make connections, both for the organization, and personally. I started to feel rejuvenated. I realized that I had not come to terms with myself for serving in a peace-time Army, and as an officer, I felt the need to serve “my soldiers” still and that this leadership role, however small, seemed to fill some of that void and quiet a demon I did not realize I had.

Through the collective efforts of the entire Cleveland/Akron leadership team, the RWB brand was becoming recognizable. We were rolling across Northeast Ohio and picking up “our people” at every race, every WOD, every interaction, week by week.

Then Matt got orders from his reserve unit to deploy (insert record scratch here) and then something even crazier happened. Matt asked if I would like to step into the chapter captain role for the one year he would be gone (restart record but at 10x speed!). Because I didn’t think I was “the right guy” for the job, I hesitated. There was too much at stake. Matt reassured me that I was a natural fit for the job, that all I needed was passion.

My biggest fear was that I would fail miserably and ruin Team RWB for the people in our chapter. They were counting on me in a way I had not experienced before. Peoples’ lives, or at least the quality of their lives, were at stake. Another concern I had centered around the budget. “What if I go over the budget?!?” I laugh at that too now…

Anyway, right about the time when Matt asked me to up my game for Team RWB, my personal life was starting to fall apart. My wife of nearly a decade filed for a divorce and the law firm she worked at assured me that I was headed for a meat grinder. What do I decide to do during this crisis?  Take the reins, of course. Seems logical, right? Little did I know, again, how logical a decision that would turn out to be.

With so much going on in my life, I needed Team RWB as much as Team RWB needed me. A few weeks ago, I listened to Mike Erwin on the Team RWB podcast and he was talking about how volunteering and giving back to others is not as altruistic as it seems because when you give to others, the reward goes to you. You feel better, you act better, and sometimes you get as much or even more out of volunteering than the person you’re trying to help. In the middle of my divorce, between motions and hearings, parenting plans and evidence, I worked on Team RWB. When I had no time to spare between two jobs, the divorce, kids, and meeting my new running partner (who eventually became my wife and biggest Team RWB supporter), I worked on Team RWB. The worries of my personal life, while important, were not so scary when I focused on Team RWB. They became the positive in my life that I could turn to for relief. Giving back kept me sane. Volunteering and meeting other soldiers, and sailors, and airmen, and marines, all kept me straight. I felt like the demon of missing my war and of not being able to take care of “my soldiers” was fading. I realized we all had struggles, and if I was able to keep Team RWB together, and not ruin it, or let it fall apart, then we would all make it together. My team would survive. I would survive.

I had an idea that to continue our chapter’s success, we needed to grow. The leadership team began to map out where we wanted to grow and after the first year at the helm, we more than doubled our size. Ohio has 88 counties, and our chapter now spans 21 of them. We got big fast! So big that I needed to make a smart decision and find a chapter co-captain. Honestly, one of the best decisions I made as Chapter Captain was asking Lexi Grum (Lexi Sharp back then) to step up as a chapter co-captain. I realized Lexi needed Team RWB as much as I did. That’s her story to tell though…

By the way, did you catch that I said the “first year at the helm”? It turned out that Matt’s deployment was extended beyond a year. 2015 was amazing and our members were out and proud and flying the Eagle every day, literally. We rolled and harnessed that energy into 2016 and came out swinging with more activities, expanded leadership roles, more outreach, the right people in the right roles, and we continued to collect more civilians and more veterans into our chapter.

If raising our chapter were akin to childrearing, Matt gave birth to our baby. It was my job to see it through adolescence (the teens), and now that the baby has grown, I realize it’s my job to let it go. The last thing I want is to be a dictator seeking a third term.

In 2017, one of our members got lit up with some Eagle fire and started seeking responsibilities and asking the right questions. If I had to let “my teenager” go off to college and be mentored by a professor, Nick Billock was the right man for the job. I asked Nick if he was interested in being the next chapter co-captain. Lexi and I both began to plan for a leadership change and map out a process for the future that would allow us to never deplete both co-captains simultaneously and hurt the chapter.

And now this…This writing process. The cursor is blinking and I don’t know how to end this story. All I can hear is the air conditioner droning. Maybe this is the way to end.

At one point on this trip, I had to give a lecture on Team RWB to a national medical conference at the Cleveland Clinic. They wanted to know how Team RWB was succeeding at helping veterans transition into civilian life. What was our formula? There were Admirals from the Public Health Service in the crowd, as well as Kevin Laci of American Sniper and my Veteran Outreach Director and consigliore, Jeremy Komasz. At one point, I mentioned that I had worn many uniforms in my life: Eagle Scout, US Army Officer, Firefighter, Paramedic, and Team RWB member and that in reflecting on those uniforms, wearing the Team RWB Eagle was by far the uniform I am most proud of. That was true then and still is to this day.

Why? Because even though “my baby” is in good hands and I am leaving “my baby” behind, “my baby” will always be there for me—and for so many others. While this little story is mine, the story of Team RWB is not. It’s not Mike Erwin’s or JJ’s or Blayne’s. It is all our little stories together, from peace-time to conflict warriors, from veterans to civilians, from West Coast to East. The Eagle is a tapestry of stories that make a community, a chapter, a team, a nation.

Thank you Team RWB. Thank you…

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Are you ready to accept the risk of leadership?

If you’re not a member of Team RWB and would like to join, you can sign up here.

If you’re already a member and are interested in taking on a leadership role in your local chapter, you can reach out to Team RWB leadership here.

When you’re ready to lead, Team RWB will be here for you. It’s never lonely at the top when you fly with Eagles!

Blog written by: Maureen Slotnick

“Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

I’ll never forget when Blayne Smith, former Executive Director of Team Red, White & Blue, talked with us about integrity.  It was the kick-off for the new Eagle Leader Fellows for 2017 and the graduation of the Fellows from 2016 in Tampa, FL.  I was one of the new fellows, at the time I was very nervous and excited, nervous because of the talent in the room (there were hundreds of applicants and 17 of us got chosen) and excited for the year ahead.  The discussion on integrity stuck in my head because many leaders don’t value it nowadays or if they do avoid the topic.  He also talked with us about always remembering to pause for a few moments, hours, or even days before we react to something.  Interestingly enough this parallels with what Mike Erwin teaches us in “Lead Yourself First” and as I continue my journey to become a certified yoga instructor I hear the same sentiment– remember the pause.  We live in a country divided right now – I feel as though years ago Republicans and Democrats were friends, now it seems even people in the same parties are snarling at each other.  When did the divide happen?  Even if you don’t agree with someone on something you can still work together to collaborate.  On a positive note, there are Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) who are creating community and narrowing that divide while working together to serve the greater good.  Team RWB is one of those organizations.  The theme of their current Old Glory Relay is Unity and that is something we could all use right now.  This world needs more leaders and that is what the Eagle Leader Fellowship is all about, building better leaders.

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I’m grateful for this past year as an Eagle Leader Fellow within Team RWB.  It’s a year filled with unlimited experiences, leadership training, education and action.  I actually applied the first year of the program (2016) and didn’t get accepted.  I was upset but not devastated, there is a big difference.  But I became more engaged with my local chapter and the growth I’ve learned will never be forgotten.  I knew I’d try again.  For me it’s always been, how can I continue to grow as a leader and then how can I give back to my community?  Team RWB has given me that opportunity and this fellowship is all about training and action.

Let me back up a step, I’m actually not a great writer (so I’ll have a few eyes review this before I send it off to the awesome communications team) and I’m just glad I’m not doing this in public – I am not a great public speaker either (trust me, I’ve had to take public speaking classes).  Luckily I’ve taken a few trainings through this fellowship that have helped with the public speaking part.

Team RWB’s mission is to enrich the lives of Americas Veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.  Their Enrichment scale is Enrichment = Health + People + Purpose.  It is an all inclusive organization so anyone can join and membership is free.  The Eagle Ethos are; People, Passion, Positivity, Community, Camaraderie & Commitment.  There are two main focuses of the organization; leadership development and community chapters at the local level.  Engage Veterans, create community, serve others and give back.  The Eagle Leader Fellowship is part of the leadership development.  I encourage anyone and everyone to apply.  This organization does not want you to be good, they want you to be great!  Build better leaders, build better communities and build a better America.

As one of the three Mid-Atlantic Fellows this year, my two paths have been; how can I grow as a leader and how can I give back to my community?  I felt we could use more yoga classes within our Richmond & Tri-Cities chapter so I chose to use some of my fellowship opportunity to get my 200-hour yoga teacher training so that I’ll be able to give back to our chapter and provide yoga classes – this is something I could also provide wherever I move across our great nation (to Team RWB & anyone in the community).  Team RWB has over 130,000 members and 200 chapters across the nation.  One of our yoga instructors gave his definition of yoga and it is “to help an individual reach their fullest potential spiritually, physically & mentally” – I think it’s also to just accept yourself and learn to “let go” of things you can’t control – and sometimes life isn’t great.  Anyone can benefit from yoga.  My 6-year-old son has even started to do it with me at night to relax, it’s a lifelong practice, similar to being a leader.  For me, especially through recent work I’ve always felt as though mental health was the same as physical health, yet we don’t treat it as such in our society.  To nourish the mind, body and spirit of any individual we should never settle for a little happiness, one should always be striving individually to create that mind, body and spirit connection.  Team RWB encourages individuals to reach their fullest potential through service and enriching the lives of Americas Veterans.

Each month during the fellowship, I’ve been able to engage with Team RWB volunteers, members and staff and take part in experiences.  Some of the highlights include; February was the ELF kick-off and we reviewed empathetic, authentic & genuine leadership – these leadership modules will be rolling out to leaders online soon and we have had hands-on experience with the program.  We also participated in the Gasparilla Distance Classic as a team.  March was the Mid-Atlantic Leadership Conference in Kentucky that focused on development within our local chapters, it was eye opening to see what opportunities and challenges you face at a local level, all chapters across the nation face the same issues so it was good to brainstorm and work as a team.  In April, Henry (a Fellow from the Northeast Region) and I attended the first ever Simon Sinek 2-day workshop in NYC, Speak like a Leader.  I’ll never forget when we met Simon and he saw our Team RWB logo and goes, “how is Team RWB? We love them!”  Next, I attended Mike Erwin’s (the Founder of Team RWB) 2-day Character & Leadership workshop.  It was extremely eye opening to learn about all the character strengths – and how to play to your strengths and develop your weaker ones.  Furthermore, this fellowship is great for self-awareness.  We also got to hear more about the book he co-wrote – Lead Yourself First,  I highly recommend it for anyone who craves a little solitude in a world that often does not stop talking.

During the summer the Mid-Atlantic region hosted an ELA (Eagle Leader Academy) and Triathlon Camp.  It was impactful to become engaged with our regional staff and other members across the region.  I’m always amazed how impactful a Team RWB weekend can be for individuals and send you back to your community with that right amount of Eagle fire.  Furthermore, I ran my first 50k with about 8 other members of the Richmond, Tri-Cities & Delaware chapters.  We all attempted the 50k and I’m happy to report we all finished.  This is something I would not have done without the support of other Eagle teammates – surrounding yourself with positive people can change the course of your life and just give you that encouragement to get out of your comfort zone and try something new.  Currently, I’m in yoga teacher training and that won’t conclude until end of December 2017.  It’s pretty life changing to learn about the study of yoga and how transformational it can be.  Most recently I attended Kara Goucher’s Podium Running Retreat which included self-defense, strength training, workshops on women’s development and lifting each other up.  We had to discuss an intention and goal before we left that weekend.  My intention was to continue to spread positive energy and my goal was to complete yoga teacher training and provide weekly yoga classes to our chapter members & community.  Reflecting more after the weekend other local leaders and I discussed hosting a trail running and yoga weekend at a local park, Eagle Outdoors we will call it.  There must be action after the fellowship to continue to spread the mission of Team RWB.

I used to think you could always apply the 80 / 20 rule to anything.  For example, 80% of the time I wear 20% of my clothes –  I actually now think it’s a 95 / 5 rule, 95% of the time it is really just about showing up, giving the best version of yourself, the willingness to serve others – be your authentic self, surround yourself with positive, genuine people who believe in the mission of the organization and that 5% just connects itself.  This is the key of how great teams come together to perform something exceptional.

Sebastian Junger writes in his book TRIBE, “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.  It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary.  The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in radically segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two.  To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country – a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason.  It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this.  In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon.  It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.”

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There is one thing about military culture I’ve always admired, you might not agree with the person to the right or left of you but you’d sure defend them.  I feel the same way about the bonds I have created with other 2017 Fellows.  The relationships you make during the Fellowship are life changing but also life-long.

Good people, good friends, great adventure – that is something to treasure.  Hands down the number one thing about this fellowship has been the relationships I’ve made along the way, they actually become a part of you.  The experience of participating in Old Glory Relay, the leadership training we have received from our staff, the continuing education that we can engage with even after our fellowship is over, it all becomes a part of us.  There are two types of people in this world, the ones who tell you to apply for the fellowship they are the good ones.  You’ll never know unless you try.  Be the kind of person that encourages someone to do what they love.

This world needs good leaders, and Team RWB builds them.  I look forward to continuing to serve this great organization through opportunities that come along and I’m so grateful to be on the journey with so many leaders who have a desire to serve others and build great community. #EagleFire

Blog written by J.J. Pinter | Team RWB Executive Director

My life, both personal and through my work at Team RWB (though they are intertwined) is busy – I suspect that’s the case with most others, as well.  Daily, I find myself focused on spreadsheets, budgets, 401K’s, social media, and the like.  Somehow, I spend most of my time working on scalable solutions to help large numbers of people create genuine relationships, and thus enrich their lives in the future – ironically, I haven’t been appreciating the relationships that I have in my life RIGHT NOW.

Recently, several unrelated things happened in my life that caused an important moment of reflection – one I thought worth sharing.  

First, I took some time to finish 2 fantastic books that have been on my reading list for quite some time:      

My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) is the journal of American naturalist and author John Muir who spent the summer of 1869 walking California’s Sierra Nevada range as a shepherd.

Zorba the Greek (1946) is a novel by Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis. It is the tale of a young Greek intellectual who tries to escape his life as an academic with the aid of the eccentric Alexis Zorba as they start/fail both a mining and a timber business.

While at face value, these books might appear seemingly unrelated – in literal content that assertion holds true.  However, thematically, they could not align more perfectly.  

Permeating throughout both books is how the protagonist is completely awestruck at the utter beauty and complexity of the world is it happens around them – for both of them, this is somewhat of a new revelation, as both had been so concerned with the future and the theoretical that they had previously not taken the time to slow down and notice.  

  • For Muir, it was experiencing the grandeur of the Sierra Nevada Mountains (what is now known as Yosemite) and being overcome by it’s complexity and interconnectedness.  
  • In the latter, it was the narrator, watching Zorba truly experience life in the physical present, and not worried about academic abstraction.  

The above realization, came at a perfect time in my life, as I had been unwittingly undergoing a perspective change of my own.  

Second, my family’s primary mode of transportation is a fully electric car – if you’ve never driven one, you should try – it will completely change your perspective.  The point here is not about conservation, but rather the experience of driving.  With an electric car, there are so many factors that affect battery life (how far you can drive), that you must be much more in tune with the world around you – things like:

  • The change in altitude between where you are, and where you’re going
  • The outside temperature and how it is changing
  • How many passengers are traveling with you
  • How many times you need to start/stop and the number of hills
  • The speed at which you drive

Charging

Because these things matter and have a direct impact on range, I’ve found myself much more in tune with the world around me, things like weather and hills – not because I wanted to or made a conscious choice to slow down and be present, but rather because I needed to as part of my daily transportation.  

As it was gradual, I didn’t fully notice it, though, until I finished those books.  As an avid reader, I’ve read many similar works – I believe that in the past I would have enjoyed both, but taken them at face value: a book about being a shepherd, and a book about escape.

For some reason, however, this time the immediate connection to the power of being present and appreciating the things, and specifically the relationships around you RIGHT NOW, stood out – I’m confident I would not have drawn this conclusion in years past.  

It’s led me to be first reflective, and then appreciative of the people that are in my life right now – the genuine relationships that I have, and how important they are.  (consequently, there is tons of research backing this up).

As Team RWB is such a big part of my life, I think it’s worthy to consider it through that lens as well.  While I have grand aspirations for what this organization can become, and how many lives it can change – I sometimes lose sight of the fantastic people that are around me each day, all because of Team RWB.  I imagine this happens to our fantastic Eagle Leaders, as well.  

In closing, while the tactical work (events, attendance, budgets, and planning) are critically important – don’t lose sight of the fact the you’ve already surrounded by great americans, and those relationships matter and make your life more rich.  Take a moment to fully experience those, and I think it will be thoroughly enriching.

Editor’s Note: Abbie Wentzel joined Team RWB in 2014 and eventually stepped up to lead our Chapter in Lexington, VA. In 2016, Abbie and her husband Patrick (also an Eagle) moved to Colorado Springs where they have found a new home, new chapter of life, and new Team RWB Chapter. This blog comes from Abbie’s experience at our Northwest Region Storytelling Camp. These Eagle Leaders experiences, numbered over 25 nationally in 2017, and are a critical component of the Eagle Leader Journey. To learn more, reach out to your Chapter leadership or visit https://www.teamrwb.org/our-approach/leadership-development-program.

Blog written by: Abbie Wentzel

My coworkers thought I was nuts for quitting my job. “For storytelling camp?” They asked incredulously…

In the months leading up to camp, my life had been a series of disappointments. I told myself that storytelling camp was going to be a great opportunity for me to get back on track. At the same time, however, I wasn’t convinced that I actually belonged at camp. What if I took a spot from someone  who really needed it—who needed it more than I did? I’m fortunate to have a great support system around me. When I was accepted, I started thinking it was a sign. I knew I had to do whatever I could to get there.

On day 1, I walked into the great room at the end of our dormitory building for our first session. I looked for a spot to sit where I could see everyone else in the room. I was mortified. Who I should sit with? Who should I talk to? Who should I be? On that first night, we were asked to write ourselves a permission slip. We were supposed to write something on it that we were giving ourselves permission to do during camp. I remember writing something on mine and thinking that I needed to erase it. There was no way I could actually give myself permission to do that. I know myself, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.  I should have known from that moment what the real reason was for me attending that camp.

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On day 2, we dove head first into the actual writing of our stories. During one of the exercises we were asked to write one true thing about us, a sentence we could use to start our stories. I wrote one line of my story. That was the easy part. Then we were supposed to be able to describe the rest of our story to a small group. The instructor gave us some examples we could model. And that’s when the panic struck. I sat there, unable to move. My pen stayed glued to the page, unable to form even a single letter. Then my emotions overtook me. Tears began silently streaming down my face. I struggled to catch my breath. I knew I had to get out of there. Without saying a word, I jumped out of my seat and found the nearest exit. Then I found a rain-soaked damp tree stub just off a path leading to the dormitory. I was so mad at myself. I had quit my job to come to this place and I couldn’t even write a few sentences of my story. Maybe my co-workers were right. As I sat there on that stump, alone, and afraid of what I had done. My body started shaking. I couldn’t help it. Suddenly I felt outside my body. I could see myself from above, sitting on the stump, surrounded by nature and the damp wet forest. The colors of the forest were so vibrant it was almost as though I was in a fairy tale. I could smell the wet moss on the log and felt the warmth of each ray of sunshine giving life to the nature around me. I sat there for I don’t know how long and simply listened to the stillness of the world. That’s when I started seeing things through my own eyes. Then my breath returned. I gathered myself together and went back inside.

On day 3, I woke up early to run a few miles around the island with a couple other Eagles. Most everyone else was too exhausted, either physically or emotionally, to run a few miles before sunup. I was exhausted too, but I knew I needed the run. When I run, especially on trails, all the other stuff in life falls away as I focus completely on where my next steps will be. After the run, I quickly showered and got downstairs to the great room. An Eagle was already up in the front of the room telling his story to the rest of the group. I still had no idea what I was going to talk about. I had a notebook full of scribbled notes from thoughts about the weekend, but nothing concrete.

When it was my turn to speak, I slowly walked to the front of the room and began telling a story but not the one I came to camp to tell. “I quit my job to be here today,” I said, feeling the gazes of those circled around me. I talked about how terrified I was to be there and that I couldn’t tell the story I originally came to tell. I spoke of a particular moment earlier in the year that had showed me how powerful the members of Team RWB could be. It was an important point, but not the point I really needed to tell.

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It took me months to process what I experienced at storytelling camp. Truth be told, I am still processing moments and situations that happened during that weekend. Yet one realization spurred by that weekend keeps coming back to me: I always put so much pressure on myself to be perfect. On day 1, I had written on my permission slip: “Stop comparing yourself to others and just be yourself.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to be perfect in every way. And I constantly compared myself to my peers who were so much stronger, smarter, and more inspirational than I was. I strived for perfection so much that I wouldn’t even speak to people who I thought were better than me because I thought I would be wasting their time. I tried to be whatever the people around me needed me to be.

The reason I needed to come to storytelling camp was to not to write a story about my past, but to write a story about my future. I had to come to storytelling camp to wake myself up from horror film I created for myself, where I was killed over and over again by my own expectations. I realized I shouldn’t strive for perfection. Instead, I should strive for authenticity. When we are authentic to ourselves, we start embracing our story and everything in it. When we can be authentic to ourselves, we can start being genuine to others. Only then can we find our true passions and reach for the stars.

Blog written by: David Chrisinger

An Afghan war veteran named James Clark recently wrote an article for Task and Purpose on fictional military leaders he’d gladly follow into combat. One of the leaders he highlighted was Saving Private Ryan’s Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, because Captain Miller was a “quiet, humble, and self-assured commander” who doesn’t ask his men to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. “That’s a leader,” Clark concludes.

I agree, of course, but Clark left out what I think is Captain Miller’s most important skill as a leader. Above all else, Captain Miller is a tremendous storyteller. He understands the power of storytelling and uses his own story to inspire action and provide hope to his men when it seemed nothing could bring them back from the brink of despair.

Allow me to explain. When we first meet Captain Miller, we see how experienced and competent he is. “Move fast and clear those murder holes,” he yells over the din of ocean and machine as he and his men approach the beach on D-Day. “Keep the sand out of your weapons. Keep those actions clear,” he reminds them. “I’ll see you on the beach.” Then the ramp drops and the first three or four rows of men are almost instantly mowed down by the German machine gunners on the ridge above the water. “Over the side!” Miller orders.

Me and Joe at TWH

Once Miller finally reaches the sea wall in front of the German fortifications, his mind clears. “Who is in command here?” he asks. A soldier to his right responds: “You are, Sir.” No one is where they are supposed to be. The armor hasn’t made it onto the beach. Nothing is going as planned. “Gather weapons and ammo,” he orders. Then he calls for the Bangalores so they can blow a hole through the German defensive fence at the top of the sea wall.

Once he and his men move behind some cover, Miller orders a few of his men to rush an impact crater where they might have enough cover to take out the machine gun nest that is pinning them down. We don’t see what happens to these men, but we are led to believe they didn’t make it when Sergeant Horvath says, “It’s a Goddamn firing squad.” Captain Miller replies, “It’s the only way we can get everybody the hell out of here.” The second group Captain Miller sends doesn’t make it either, so he calls on Jackson, the sniper. But before sending him out, Miller exposes himself to the machine gunners, drawing their fire long enough for Jackson to scramble into the crater, where he takes two clean shots at the machine gun crew. “If your mother saw you do that,” Horvath tells Miller, “she’d be very upset.” With the crew eliminated, the rangers are in business.

The mission that day was clear: Get off the beach or die.

A day or two later, Captain Miller is given another tough assignment—one “straight from the top”—though the mission isn’t as clear as it first may seem. He learns that he and a small squad of his choosing must find a Private James Francis Ryan whose three brothers have all been killed in combat. After finding Ryan, they’re to bring him back so he can go home to his grieving mother. “It’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles,” Miller tells Horvath.

While on patrol, we learn the men don’t know much about the Captain. We later learn there’s a pool with a prize of $300 to the man who figures out where he is from.

We also hear the first grumblings about the mission from the men. It’s not clear why they’re doing what they’re doing. “You want to explain the math of this to me?” a soldier named Reiben asks. “Where’s the sense in risking the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?” The medic tells Reiben to think about Ryan’s mother, but that logic doesn’t add up. We all got mothers, Reiben says. “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,” another soldier responds, quoting Alfred Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” That argument doesn’t seem to work either. Then Miller weighs in: “We all have orders, and we have to follow them.” Even when they don’t make sense, Reiben responds. Especially, says Miller.

Reiben then asks if the Captain ever gripes. Yes, he says. But he doesn’t gripe down, he always gripes up. That’s the way it works. Reiben then asks what Miller would say if Reiben was a Major, and Miller responds: “I’d say this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover, I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men, especially you, Reiben, to ease her suffering.” Captain Miller gets a laugh, but he doesn’t get buy-in. The story he’s told about this mission—the “why are we here?” story—isn’t good enough.

When the men finally reach Neuville, a small French village not far from the Normandy beaches, they find rain and heavy fighting. Caparzo, one of the men in Miller’s squad, deviates from the mission to help a family who’s caught in the crossfire. This decision ultimately costs him his life. “They want us to take the children,” Upham translates. When Miller orders Caparzo to give the family’s young daughter back, Caparzo says, “The decent thing to do is to at least take her down the road to the next town.” Miller is frustrated by Caparzo’s insubordination, even if he realizes Caparzo has the purest of intentions. “We’re not here to do the decent thing,” he says before yanking the child out of his arms. “We’re here to follow fuckin’ orders!” Again, because the mission is unclear, the men aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do. Then a shot rings out and Caparzo is down.

Later that night, Miller and Horvath are talking in a bombed-out church over a cup of coffee. “When you end up killing one of your men,” Miller says, “you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two or three or ten others. Maybe 100 others.” Miller then confides that he’s lost 94 men under his command since Kasserine Pass in Northern Africa and that he justifies this to himself by saying he saved the lives of ten times as many. “And that’s how simple it is. That’s how you rationalize making the choice between the mission and the man.” But with Private Ryan, things are different. The mission is the man.

The next day, Miller’s squad comes across a German machine gun nest, and Miller decides to assault it. When one of the men, Mellish, says it’s not their objective to take out this machine gun—that it won’t help them complete their mission—Miller snaps back that their objective is to win the war.

Let’s take stock. First, the mission is to find Ryan because the men have orders. Because the men haven’t bought into that story, Caparzo makes a costly error. Now Mellish feels strongly they can accomplish the mission—to find Ryan—without subjecting themselves to undue risk, but Miller changes the mission.

During the assault, the squad’s medic is fatally wounded, and the men also capture a German soldier. When Miller decides to cut the POW loose, the squad’s discipline dissolves. Reiben threatens to abandon the mission, and Horvath draws his pistol and threatens to shoot him for desertion.

Just when the tension reaches a fever pitch, Miller asks the men a simple question: “What’s the pool on me up to?” He tells the men he’s a school teacher from Pennsylvania who coaches baseball in the spring. “Sometimes I wonder,” he says, “if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me whenever it is I get back to her.”

Then he says he doesn’t much care about Ryan: “The man means nothing to me.” But if bringing him home earns Miller the right to go home, then “that’s my mission,” he says.

For the first time since D-Day, the men have a clear understanding of their mission—to bring Ryan home so that they can go home, too. Reiben then decides to stay. Why? Because he and the rest of the men finally know two things. They know who Captain Miller is, and they know why he’s there.

Who are you? Why are you here? There may come a time when you’ll need to tell a story that answers those two questions. Will you be ready?

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David Chrisinger believes everyone has a story, and he’s dedicated his life to helping people find and share their story in a way that leads to understanding and connection. He serves as a Midwest Coordinator for Team RWB and is the lead instructor for Storytelling Camp. In 2016, David edited a collection of essays written by student veterans titled See Me for Who I Am and is editing a similar collection of stories written by Team RWB leaders from around the country.