By Mark Helm | Team RWB Chicago Chapter Captain

I almost gave up on Team RWB, but I’m so glad I didn’t.

I still don’t know how it happened. I was an athlete. A soldier. That all changed after I left the Army. I still remember the day it hit me. I was sitting in my living room, looking at a photograph of me and my family standing around the Christmas tree. I didn’t recognize the guy smiling back at me. How did I gain so much weight? It was at that moment that I realized I had been making excuses and blaming my injuries. I was feeling sorry for myself. Fifty pounds later, I realized that was enough.

I started taking control of my life again by joining Weight Watchers. A few months later I was down 65 pounds and had renewed energy. I never enjoyed running while in the Army, but with the weight loss, I grew to love it. Running not only burns calories, but it also helps relieve stress. Not long after I started running regularly, I decided to sign up for a 5k race on the 4th of July.

After I finished the 5k, I heard about a 10k the next month. I finished that race and then looked for something longer. I ran my first half marathon two months after running my first race ever. I was hooked. The one thing missing was that I trained and ran alone. I missed being part of a team, so I joined a local running club.

It’s amazing what a person can accomplish when they interact with others. My running club was so supportive, and I learned a ton from all the seasoned runners I now found myself training with.  I asked lots of questions and absorbed as much information as I could. But then I realized that only about a quarter of the club members ever showed up for workouts. If you paid your dues, you were in the club, and if you never showed up, no one really cared.

Mark Helm - Chicago 1It was a chilly morning when I lined up to run the Detroit Half Marathon. The course starts downtown, goes over the bridge into Canada, and comes back into the United States through a mile-long tunnel under the Detroit River. Running past the Canadian border agents, I came off the bridge and headed back toward the river to run along the riverbank for a few miles. The sun was just starting to rise and was reflecting off the Detroit skyline. Then I noticed two guys wearing red shirts and carrying the American flag. They were slowly passing me on my left. When I got home, I immediately searched for Team RWB. Free to join. Not just for Veterans. Enriching lives. Sign me up. I thought maybe this was just the sort of team I was looking for.

I live about 50 miles north of downtown Chicago, and I don’t like to travel into the city if I don’t have to. When I joined the Chicago Chapter, I received a welcome email and was added to the weekly newsletter and the Chapter’s Facebook group. One week turned into two, and I still hadn’t seen any events near me. I went back to training alone. Months went by, and I still hadn’t joined my Team for an event. Then I read about the Soldier Field 10-Miler. Perfect.  Suddenly I had visons of running with my teammates, carrying the American flag out onto Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears play their home games. When I arrived, however, my hopes were dashed. I was one of 20,000 runners, and I didn’t see a single other Team RWB shirt the entire race.

A few months later, I signed up for another race in downtown Chicago, only this time I decided to be a bit more proactive. I wanted to run with the flag, so I built a pole out of an extra piece of heavy electrical conduit. All I had to do was cut it to length and paint it white. I thought that even if I didn’t see any other Eagles, maybe they would see me with the flag. While the crowd cheered “USA! USA! USA!” wherever I was on the course, I still couldn’t find my Team. Where were these people? I thought maybe Team RWB wasn’t what it was hyped up to be.

The following week I learned that Team RWB was hosting a fun run along the shore of Lake Michigan followed by beach volleyball. My wife and I got up early and drove downtown, and it was there, along the lake, that we finally found some other Eagles. We talked before and after the run with each other, and I even met the chapter captain. I spoke to him briefly about my story and my experiences over the past couple races. He listened to me, and we talked about ways I might be able to get more active in the chapter. I recall driving home feeling that Team RWB was more than just a club. I decided that I needed to do more.

In the days that followed, I started to post invitations for other members to join me for a run in my home town. Slowly, I recruited more members from my area. It didn’t take long before the chapter captain reached out to me. We sat down for coffee one day, and we talked about the possibilities of me having more opportunities in my area. I was humbled by the news that I was already making an impact in the community. The captain asked me to be part of the leadership team. Hesitant to overcommit, I said that I would love to but that I had a stressful job. I wasn’t sure what level of commitment I could give. I was reassured that if I just kept doing what I was already doing it would be enough.

I continued setting up and leading events over the next few months and eventually became the chapter’s Veteran Outreach Director. Over the course of a year, I had a lot of positive experiences and a few challenging ones, too. Mainly I felt like I needed to do more, that I wasn’t doing enough. But at the same time, it was hard to juggle all my responsibilities. I know this is a challenge that many volunteer leaders face.

Early in 2016, I learned about an initiative called the Team RWB Eagle Leader Fellowship. It’s a year-long opportunity to work with leaders in your region and further develop your leadership skills. Soon after I was selected to be a fellow, I became the Chicago Chapter Captain. Thankfully, I have a very supportive wife, and the leaders around me helped make this process very positive. Throughout my fellowship, I even got to use my own experiences to better help chapter captains transition into their newfound leadership roles.

Mark Helm - Chicago 2

As part of the fellowship, I was also able to become a certified running coach with the intention to never charge anyone for my time. After I completed my training, I shared the details with my chapter and extended the offer to anyone who wanted my assistance. Almost immediately I had eight different members accept my offer to help coach them. And while their goals are very different, I have been able to offer the support and assistance that I wish had when I began running many years ago.

To think that I almost gave up on Team RWB before I was even a part of it is still hard to contemplate. When I first joined, Team RWB wasn’t what I needed it to be. The easy thing would have been to quit, to search for something else. The much harder choice was to stay and take action. I showed up, got involved, and slowly helped make Team RWB work for people like me. Along the way I learned some valuable lessons. Most importantly, I learned that life is too short to run it alone.

Blog written by: Jennifer S.

In November of 1999, I became a military spouse when my husband joined the Air Force.  Since then we have met amazing people, been around the world, and were given so many amazing opportunities.  Over the next 17 years, I started to gain weight despite training for marathons.  The birth of 2 children, putting a career as a physical therapist assistant on hold, a broken leg, and 10 moves were all contributing factors to my weight gain.

In 2013, we moved back to the US, after living overseas for 5 years.  We decided to continue to put my career on hold for at least 6 more months due to the new changes in our family.  We were now stationed in a Shreveport, Louisiana.  

Shreveport, Louisiana is where I was introduced to Team RWB. I was really missing all the activity groups and people from our last duty station.  My first event was attending a WOD with Warriors event.  I survived the workout and wanted to become more involved.  At first I struggled because I thought I needed to “be in better shape” before I could represent Team RWB and wear the Eagle.  The Chapter Captain encouraged me and explained that the group wasn’t about that – it was about connecting veterans to the community through physical and social opportunities. It was about providing opportunities and being consistent and being around regular people (like me).  Soon I found myself leading 2 run/walks a week, organizing an informational table at the bimonthly Information Fair and helping with community outreach.  One of my biggest projects was working on the 9-11 Sunrise to Sunset Flag Run.   The whole experience was inspiring, rewarding and humbling – such an amazing and simple way to give back to those who have given so much!  

Shortly after our move to Louisiana my husband deployed to Afghanistan – we were all thankful we had put my returning to work on hold!  I believe being involved in Team RWB definitely helped me through this deployment and helped me and my two teenagers still adjusting to the move.  I truly hope my involvement helped veterans during this time – whether it was introducing them to Team RWB at the information fair, providing other Eagles an ear, or just making sure there were snacks available at an event.  Near the end of my husband’s deployment we learned we’d be moving again after only 15 short months in Louisiana to Hawaii?

In Hawaii, I really wanted to take advantage of all that Team RWB had to offer – I was immediately impressed by the activities and calendar; however, wasn’t able to participate in many events due to my family obligations.  Around this time, I started to get involved in CrossFit and started to work on my running goals.  My Crossfit box was starting a ‘New You’ program and during this time I also wanted to be more involved with Team RWB and balance the needs of my kids, and “my” veteran. I decided if I wanted to get more involved Team RWB and its mission, I would need to host events again.  I decided to put myself out there and hope there would be interested Eagles.  Hawaii has been the first place I have been able to get my husband to come out to a Team RWB event.  He tends to be one of those veterans, like so many I speak to, who thinks he is “just doing his job” and doesn’t want any attention. He has enjoyed the team atmosphere and camaraderie and how the mission is to connect Eagles to the community.

Currently, I am hosting a run/walk three times a week at Central Oahu Regional Park.  Our running group is small, but we have a great time talking and telling stories.  I have realized that I started this run/walk group to help other Eagles, but this group has helped me in the process.  If this small run/walk group has helped a veteran ½ as much as it has helped me then I think this group was a success.   Sometimes showing up to an activity is 75% of the battle.  Knowing people are going to be there, and are counting on you can give you the encouragement you need to start.

My advice to new Eagles:  Get involved! Attend, host, do what you have dreamed of – maybe what you thought you never could!  “Dead last beats did not finish; which trumps did not start.” Anonymous.   I believe you can do it and Team RWB is there to support and encourage you – jump on the opportunities to connect, grow and be healthier! 17 years ago when I became part of the military family I never dreamed I would finish a ½ marathon, let alone a full marathon – and I definitely never thought I would focus on anything other than finishing, yet here I am working on getting faster, improving my finish times and the best part it is more fun now than ever thanks to Team RWB

Hundreds of Eagles took on the ZP Challenge this past Spring/Summer, and made some sizable changes in their life by using the app.  We wanted to share their stories with you, and invite you to make some changes as well, during our Fall/Winter Challenge Series starting this week!  Download the ZP Challenge App, select Team RWB as your place of work, register and start tracking your better choices on a daily basis.

Diane Porter

Diane Porter

$5k winner

San Diego, CA

Team RWB Chapter founder in San Diego. 20 year Navy veteran and mother of two children.  She is a school administrator on the Naval base.

“I can’t believe this! I never thought I would win anything. The most important part of this is I feel like I have my family back. We still take 30 minutes a day to have one on one family time. It is so important.”

Casey McCabe

$1k winner

Silver Spring, MD

With the support of her family, her Team RWB community and ZP Casey has rebuilt a life for her and her child.

“ZP is about self-pacing. You start with small steps then build to bigger ones. You will accomplish things you never thought you could.”

Daniel Moreland

$1k winner

Jacksonville, FL

Decided to get back into shape. He signed up to do the Virginia Beach half marathon then he took on the ZP Challenge.

“Winning this is totally unexpected. I have already won my health and my life back. ZP is simple and for everybody.”

Andrew Rowe

$1k winner

Summerville, GA

Was in the Army Reserves for 8 years. Was in Afghanistan in 2003. He started his ZP Challenge with swimming then moved on to running. He has now lost 75 pounds.

“ZP has been a motivation for me to take a positive step each day. It’s helped me move forward in all aspects of my life.”

Thomas Zyliak

$1k winner

Manchester, NH

He works for both his local VA and Team RWB chapter. Former Air Force serviceman. He totally changed his eating habits with ZP. No more fried foods or soda.

“I am most pored of changing my health. Spending time with my family is #1 on my list. Now that I feel better, I am better bale to be there for them.”

Keeley Speck

$1k winner

Shreveport, LA

She is in her 3rd year serving in the Air Force.  Used ZP to get her and her husband to be more active together.

“We started being more active. Our small successes with ZP helped move us forward individually and together. It made it easy and fun to track your goals.”

Tiffany Ingersoll

$1k winner

Shelton, WA

He is new to the Air Force. They had recently moved from Guam. Used ZP to help track their fitness, better eating and finances.

“I used the ZP app to help me stay motivated. There are so many storied of folks doing better. It keeps you going every day.”

Willie Wright

$1k winner

Minot, ND

He is in the Air Force. He used the ZP app to help him check in with his family members on a regular basis and stay mindful about h his spending.

“ZP helps remind me of the important things in my life, family, my health, and money. It makes it easier to be focused.”

Taylor Corona

$1k winner

Fort Stewart, GA

Trains for 5ks and takes her baby with her in the stroller. She used ZP to help her focus on better eating and consistent training.

“With ZP I became an overall happier person. I didn’t expect that. The ZP Challenge has opened me up to be more social and active. It’s great.”

Tammy McGee

$1k winner

Alpha, NJ

She has been with Team RWB Social Leadership team for 1 year. Her husband is a 21-year veteran with the National Guard.

“I am most proud of my family and what we have accomplished. We spend more family time together. We are much happier than before.”

Creighton Burrell

$1k winner

Peoria, IL

He works for the Salvation Army. He used ZP to set some goals and stay motivated.

“It can be hard to make a change on your own. It was simple with ZP. Start where you are. Go at your own pace. You can do it.”

Blog written by: Austin Howard

One afternoon in the heat of Las Vegas, I received an email from Donnie Starling about a run the next morning down the Vegas Strip. I showed up because I heard that I might be able to get a free shirt (who would pass that up?) but I stayed around because what I encountered that morning was so much more than just a quick workout down one of the most renowned streets in the world with others I had never even met.

There are only two types of people that are on the Strip at 7 in the morning – the crazy marathon runners training while on vacation and the people who are wandering back to their hotel room still intoxicated from the night before. Either way, both types of people will crack a smile and cheer on a united group of individuals running with the red, white and blue streaming behind them. It was on this morning that I experienced the power of being connected with people that I didn’t even know, simply because we all chose to wake up that morning, throw on our running shoes, and come together on the Las Vegas Boulevard.

Several months passed as a member of the Team RWB Las Vegas Chapter and I loved meeting up with the crew for a morning run or an afternoon hike at Red Rock. The events were compelling, the morale was contagious, and I enjoyed getting to know fellow Team RWB members on a more personal level. Then I got orders to Minot, N.D.

Power of Investing in Others

Not only is Minot popular for its extreme cold temperatures, but I soon learned there wasn’t a Team RWB chapter in the area. During my first months in the frozen tundra, I connected with my fellow Airmen, but I still longed for something more. I started wearing my Team RWB shirt when I went to the gym and while at work. On one of these days, another person in Minot came up to talk to me about my shirt—that deep red with the pointed and proud eagle on the front. I soon learned his name: Will Wright. He had been a member of the Team RWB chapter in England and as it turned out, he missed the camaraderie too. Will and I made a decision together that day, under the falling snow and fervid wind. We would wear our shirts whenever we could in an effort to see who else might be familiar with the organization.

The response was overwhelming. What started out as a small group of people wearing our shirts because we could soon became the beginning of a new community of this perpetual organization—Team RWB Minot. We started meeting for physical and social events in March of 2015.  After going through the process to start this new Team RWB community, we reached over 500 members within a year.

Team RWB Minot has now been a Team RWB Community for over a year. When we took the initiative to make this community official, I did it because I wanted to further one of this organization’s most beloved mottos: to enrich the lives of others. The funny thing is that through it all, I ended up helping myself. We’ve all heard that it’s far greater to give a gift than to receive one and it is the same with volunteering and investing in others’ lives. There is a reason why Team RWB has several thousand volunteer leaders. We find our sense of purpose by helping others, which in turn helps us continue to grow and develop ourselves. As Robert Ingersoll said, “We rise by lifting others”. There might be dozens of people who show up to a Team RWB Minot event, but what means the most is when one of the members comes up to me and explains what this organization has done for them. One person took that step from an unhealthy lifestyle to working out and eating right. Another found friends and encouragement when they thought they were all alone. Still another found a little bit of light in a place where dark clouds and white snow cover the world for the majority of the year.

Team RWB is an organization that chooses to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. But here, it’s also an escape from the cold weather and a group where encouragement, laughter, drive and warmth thrive. It’s a place where people find themselves and discover that helping others means helping themselves in ways they couldn’t imagine. It’s a family. And it’s a family that now, three years after that very first run in the Las Vegas sun, I can’t imagine living without.

I showed up for the free shirt. I joined because of the people. But I stay because of the purpose.

Blog written by: Kris Lord; Team RWB SF Veteran Outreach/Engagement Director

The snow fell in big soft flakes outside of Wilderness cabin, on what was our third and final day of storytelling camp in Northern Michigan.  Outside of the cabin windows, we could see the outlines of the muskrat-inhabited lagoon and the wooden bridge through the snow.  And it was fitting that on the day we would share our stories – stories we had been mulling over and chewing on and silently practicing in our minds and notebooks – we were surrounded by a hushed and respectful silence in the outside world.

Storytelling Camp
I heard stories of sadness, of joy amidst chaos, of resiliency and survival.  We had been told many times over the weekend that each person has a story worth telling.  That there is no need for one-upping, and especially one-downing – a trait many of us seem to share, thinking that our story isn’t important enough to tell.  Our leaders this weekend put forth tremendous effort to guide us. David Chrisinger led us through different exercises with skill and humility, teaching us that telling our story is akin to bringing others into our confidence – that our stories can be acts of letting others in, and a sharing of wisdom we’ve earned through experiences.  I was profoundly moved by his simple statement: ‘Start with one true thing’.  Build from there.  We are all capable of doing that.  Zack Armstrong, an insightful and compassionate leader, trusting us with his story as we were trusting him and the others, showed us that he was equally moved by all that we shared.  Joe Quinn, with his humanness and humor, never deviating from his message that we are all worthy of being heard, encouraged us as leaders to set that example of being worthy.

“My life is changed after this weekend”, was uttered more than once, in the context of feeling one’s story was worth telling, or having the experience of interacting with those previously avoided turn out to be a positive one.  We came from so many different backgrounds, and found common ground not only in spite of, but born of unique experiences, and that did more to bridge any divide than many thought possible.  There was an acknowledgement of our differences with a genuine appreciation for the individual journey.

As with my other Team RWB camp experiences, it was the moments in between that added a layer to the bonds that were starting to be built.  Talk over coffee before class yielded glimpses of wisdom and intriguing depths in the person next to me.  During a mid-morning break, marveling with another teammate at a dragonfly perched outside of the cabin door, warming itself as the air slowly thawed, while we appreciated the shimmer of its wings.  Laughing at both strikes and gutter balls, and picking up unflattering but well-deserved nicknames at the bowling alley.

There have been many incredible shares already by my campmates, and I can only echo their sentiments, and add my own impressions.  I’ve been processing the experience, and each time I think, ‘OK, I’ve got it.  I know what I want to say’, one of my campmates does something brave, or displays an act of leadership that impacts me.  Did our time together at camp have anything to do with those things?  Our combined experience of being seen and heard, and supported with empathy but not pity?  I hope so.  I see a ripple effect with this camp, that began with a pebble in Wilderness Lagoon, starting small and expanding outward in soft waves, and I can’t help but wonder what might be possible if the storytelling were to spread and continue.

After this weekend, I see that not only is it important to share our story, but the act of ‘holding space’ for others to do the same is an incredible opportunity to grow in more than one direction.  The act of empathetic listening is a gift that we can give, and the mark of a great leader.  This camp offered us opportunities to do both – each time one of us was brave enough to stand up to share, the room went quiet; and afterwards, there was a respectful silence as we sat with what we’d heard, until the next person stood.

I went to camp a very grateful observer, and came home a changed participant.  As David said, even if our stories wind up in a drawer, never having been read by another, it’s OK.  I believe the act of letting them out – whether the medium is verbal, written, or artistic – gives us space to look at them, and potentially change the hold they have on us.