Blog written by: Isaac Fox, Houston Chapter

I wanted to share a story about my experience at Team RWB’s Eagle Leader Academy.  For those who don’t already know, Team RWB is a largely volunteer-run organization whose mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. The team logo is an image of an eagle, and we refer to each other and cheer each other on as “Eagles.”  If you’ve been to a running event you might have noticed the eagle shirts or heard people yelling to each other, “Go Eagle!” as Team RWB members run past.  You may even have seen a man with a red eagle shirt running onto the field during the NFL championship game in 2016, but if you weren’t already familiar with Team RWB you might not have noticed what was going on.  Every member of Team RWB has his or her own reasons for being part of it, but not everybody is comfortable sharing their story of “why”.  These stories figure prominently in my experience over the weekend, and I’ll talk about that later.
I’ve been a member of Team RWB since 2014, and I’ve taken a progressively more active role within the organization during that time.  This year I was honored to have Team RWB invest in me as an “Eagle Leader” by sending me to their Eagle Leader Academy (ELA) in El Paso, TX where I met a couple dozen amazing leaders to share our stories and grow stronger and more competent together. My weekend adventure began with a trip to the airport and a flight to El Paso.  I met one of my fellow Eagles as I got onto the plane, and met several others in the El Paso Airport as we waited for the shuttle to take us to the hotel.  Even as the introductions were being made (“Isaac, Houston Chapter”) we were laughing together and telling stories about the little things that had already happened to us on our way to ELA.  Andy had missed a flight (I hadn’t met him yet, but I recalled seeing him waiting in the hallway as they filled our plane and closed the door), and several of us had seen a man in a long trench coat entering the airport as we were leaving.  There was some debate about whether we’d seen the same man, as I took him for a monk with a stylized haircut and outfit, and others saw a regular man with very unusual clothes considering the warm and sunny weather.  We also talked about whether we should bother waiting for the shuttle or simply walk to the hotel, which was less than a mile away.  Eventually the shuttle came for us and a few minutes later we arrived at the hotel and met even more Eagles.
The weekend consisted of periods of classroom training broken up by exercise sessions, meals, and a service project.  The classroom training focused on how to be “EAGLE” leaders, meaning Empathetic, Authentic, Genuine, Loyal and Effective. The training involved both lecture sessions where we learned basic concepts of EAGLE leadership, and breakout groups where we shared our own experiences with leadership and what we had learned from them. Authenticity and Genuineness were the elements that received the most focus, and I would explain them as follows:
 – Authenticity is knowing yourself so that you are able to be true to yourself and your values as you interact with others.  You may feel more comfortable putting forward a guarded version of yourself, but putting the “real you” out there is important because if you don’t then others will detect and be put off by your facade.  Being authentic will often require feeling vulnerable.
 – Where authenticity involves looking inward to understand yourself, genuineness involves listening to and empathizing with the others in your group. To be genuine, you must try to understand the back story and motivations of the people you’re leading, and be empathetic toward them. People will respond differently to leadership styles and you should try to find ways to engage and motivate each of them individually.
In our groups we shared stories of past leadership experiences, why we’ve sought leadership or why we’ve avoided it.  We talked about some of the most important lessons that other leaders have taught us (mine was “the difference between the master craftsman and the beginner is that the master can recognize and fix his mistakes.”) In the room we had some very experienced and accomplished volunteer leaders with decades of service experience, and it was wonderful to hear their perspective on these topics.
Our meals together were where some of the strongest bonds were forged within the group, and arguably where the bulk of personal growth happened.  We were encouraged to think about our “why” stories: the personal reasons we joined and stayed with Team RWB.  As the group became more comfortable with each other, and through the encouragement of the academy leaders, we also became more comfortable with the importance of vulnerability and shared parts of the deeply emotional experiences that brought us and bound us to Team RWB.  Many within our group had left the military with mental and physical scars, and quite a few had struggled with substance abuse as a means of coping with these issues.  There were stories about caring for loved ones with serious injuries, stories of separation from spouses, friends, children, and sharing of many other painful experiences.  A common thread in the stories was that through Team RWB, we each had found a network of support and a way to engage ourselves in something larger which in the end was helping us to overcome our challenges and heal ourselves.  By understanding and being able to share our own stories, we took steps toward comfort in our vulnerability and moved down the path to greater authenticity.
On the final morning, we had our service project at the El Paso Food Bank, and one by one we said our heartfelt goodbyes before departing for home.  It was hard to believe that in such a short time we could form such strong bonds with each other, and it was hard to let go of the group and go back to our everyday lives.  I know that I learned a lot over the weekend, but more importantly I was shown a direction for further growth and development and can begin to practice the harder stuff as I go forward.  Those who know me will (I hope!) attest to my authenticity, and when the situation demands it I can definitely be vulnerable without oversharing.  Understanding and showing empathy towards others will be the harder part for me.  I can be empathetic but sometimes struggle to find the right words for a situation.  Thanks to the ELA, I understand how important it is to express empathy (not sympathy) and can begin working on getting the right words out.
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As an example, the day after I got home from ELA, a friend shared that her parent had been diagnosed with cancer.  Instead of just saying “so sorry,” I said “I don’t know how you’re feeling, but I’ve had a parent diagnosed with cancer and I’m available to talk if you ever want to.”  There was a little voice inside telling me that I’d better hope she doesn’t come around to talk – but I’ve learned the importance of taking those hard steps and being vulnerable or uncomfortable so that you can help your friends or team.  I heard at the ELA about people whose friends simply disappeared when they were in need, and I know that I want to be a better friend than that, regardless of how hard that may be.
So here’s to continuous self-improvement, and a big thank-you to Team RWB for their investment in us as leaders. I am grateful to have been part of such a great experience.

Blog by: Scott Whisler

Like many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tragedies at the World Trade Center and Pentagon were fierce motivators behind my decision to join the military. There was this deep desire to ship out and defend my nation’s honor. Not once did I question where it came from, because it felt natural to me. Surprisingly, there were few veterans in my family when I was growing up. One of my great grandfathers was a Sailor at Pearl Harbor on that Day of Infamy. Another great grandfather was a soldier with the Army Air Corps and was a crewman on the B-17. They told few stories, but enough for me to be hooked on the idea of serving in the greatest military since the Roman Legions. Eighteen year old me was made out of pure motivation and sheer will to fight. That is how I earned the title “U.S. Marine.”

Nothing could have prepared me for that enlistment, most of which was rather uneventful. The first year was spent in training, followed by two years at a naval base, eventually hitting the Fleet Marine Force in 2009. The unit I joined had recently returned from an MEU and wasn’t scheduled to deploy until early 2010. We trained hard and in April 2010 were deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. For many vets the hardest thing to talk about is the physical traumas they suffered that were the catalyst for the emotional and psychological traumas they endure. However, in my case it is the lack of physical trauma that tortured me when I came back home. Over the course of our seven month deployment we lost 13 men and one K9. To come back home while they could not was painful beyond description. That pain was only the precursor, as I separated from the military just 8 months after returning home.

Transitioning from the Marine Corps to civilian life has been the hardest task I have ever undertaken. Shortly before separating, my wife left me and took our 4 month old son with her. That gave me no choice but to move in with my mom, who had moved several times since I enlisted and no longer lived in the same area that I grew up in. Any friends I had from school were 60 miles away at best, my son was 40 miles out, and the town we were living in was an old tourist town that had all but washed away. Isolation became the only thing I knew. Once I began using my GI Bill to attend school, I was able to secure an apartment that put me closer to my son and a community that I could engage in. Yet without a job, I couldn’t afford to go anywhere, let alone do anything with anybody, and so I continued to isolate. It took me 14 months before I found my first job, an on call position as a carpet cleaner. There wasn’t a single big name company that I hadn’t applied to, or continued to apply to. For 3 more years I struggled to find full time, permanent employment while switching industries multiple times. There were periods where I worked multiple jobs at the same time while still attending school. Eventually I just got burnt out, receiving an academic dismissal from the local community college.

There had to be more to life than this, I could feel it. There’s no way that life has to be this hard on anybody. Not long after running into an old high school friend, we were able to reconnect with a few others. Out of the four of us, three were Marines. Each and every one of us was struggling with employment and life after the military. We began getting involved in local Veteran Service Organizations (VSO), even putting on a car show where we raised $1,200 for two VSO’s. I sought help from groups that held activities, offered community service opportunities, provided assistance for finances, and even groups that provided gardening services. Through the act of serving, I found that the pain went away.  That need to serve forced me to dive in with all I had, I wanted to be a part of every VSO I could and affect every Veteran I came across. Team Red, White, & Blue found its way into my crosshairs and in early 2015 I jumped all in.

Having been a part of so many other organizations that had different platforms in which they aimed to help veterans gave me the ability to appreciate what RWB was when I joined. Eagles aren’t exclusive to any ONE demographic, nor are they only for veterans. The pureness of the mission statement and communities reached into me and pulled at my heart like I had never felt before. From that came this passion, a burning desire to be a part of more, and drove me to lead weekly activities to connect with others. At last I had found my tribe and I committed myself to growing, maintaining, and enriching my community of Eagles. With the encouragement of my chapter captain I applied to the NW Regional Leadership Camp. I saw this as the next step in fulfilling that mission statement.

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On the last Friday in September, I stepped into uncharted waters on my personal map. I had never met another Eagle outside of my chapter, nor had I attended a leadership seminar outside of the military. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. Yet my nerves were immediately calmed by the love and support displayed that first night. We had taken a bus out to a local farm where we sat around a campfire on bales of hay. One by one we were asked to stand up and introduce ourselves, where we called home, how we came to Team RWB, and most importantly what was our “Why.” I believe that night built a foundation for the bonds we were about to establish the following day. Most of Saturday was spent in the classroom as we learned from established leaders within the organization and Eagle Leader Fellows (ELFs) on the values of quality, effective leadership. Some of the concepts I had heard before, but many challenged the ideals that had been taught to me previously and truly sparked a change within my brain housing group. Finally, around 1pm we stepped off for our GoRuck Light challenge under one inspirational Cadre. Since that weekend was the anniversary of the events in Mogadishu, Operation Gothic Serpent, our Cadre had planned our evolution to coincide with the timeline of events 23 years ago.

We started the ruck with a simple circuit of pushups, thrusters, flutter kicks, squats, and a 400m ruck that we broke into groups for. Once our circuit was over we walked 50ft over to the Boise River and got wet as all 26 of us had to dunk our heads in the water with arms interlocked, and even making waves with our rucks by slapping them on the water from overhead. Soaking wet and feeling good we pushed forward to the next objective where we had to search for a downed pilot; our Cadre had us search and find a memorial plate that had been placed in the local park. This is when things began to get challenging, as we were given a casualty to carry. Thankfully it was not me; I was hands down the heaviest person there. But the person selected was no twig, and so we definitely had to switch our carriers out regularly as we went up a hill in order to prevent exhaustion. Once at the top of the hill we had an absolutely breathtaking view of Treasure Valley and the city of Boise. With the sun beginning to set this is where our Cadre had someone read the Medal of Honor citation for MSgt Gary Gordon, who was a Delta Sniper that heroically sacrificed his life in Mogadishu. While the citation was being read, one of our team members began to have an emotional reaction. As a Gold Star mom, I can’t even begin to imagine the emotions that she was experiencing as the details of MSgt Gordon’s actions were read. But I had this moment where I realized that I had signed up for the Marines, gone to training, and deployed to a combat theater myself. It tore at my heart in that moment to realize it could have been my mom on top of that hill as this citation was being read. Unsure and afraid myself, I walked over and put my arm around her because I didn’t want her to be alone and I knew that I would want someone there for my mom if the roles had been reversed.

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The ruck continued down the hill, still carrying our casualty, and contouring the river for a little while longer as we worked our way to our final objective. At the last checkpoint before the final location I was selected to be the ATL. This was probably the most upsetting portion of the whole ruck, because as I was selected ATL the cadre was making the team pick up a log in addition to our casualty. Being a leader in this event meant not being able to carry a physical load and so I was helpless for the final segment as my teammates carried the log, our casualty, and made sure all gear was accounted for. Finally we arrived at a park as the sun had begun rapidly setting and the cadre gave us the command to make a formation. From that we began the tunnel of love exercise, which is where everybody lines up in the front leaning rest and one by one we low crawl through with our ruck on. This was quite the challenge for me as most of my teammates were much shorter than I was and that meant a much smaller gap between them and the ground, but we made it work. After a couple of times through the tunnel, we were told to form up again where we did inch worm pushups in formation. It had been so long since I had done this form of PT, which made this section of the ruck the hardest. Our cadre had us hold the front leaning rest between each set of inch worms, but on the last one he had us hold it for the duration of the Ballad of the Green Berets.

Now in the classes, our cadre had shared a wonderful quote with us “pain shared is pain divided.” Each of us had our own way of doing this. Some focused inward and internalized the pain, others like me externalized it. But one of our teammates began singing along to the song and helped to sooth many of us with his deep baritone. Little did we know that while we were cringing and yelling and singing, our cadre had been putting the GoRuck Light patches on our rucks. Once the song was over we were allowed to go back to our packs in formation and our cadre pointed out the patches, then came another patching: our Ruck Camp patches. These patches are only for the Eagles who attend the GoRuck Leadership camps and are really cool. For me it was way more than a patch, it was a symbol of the hard work I had been putting in at my chapter and at the camp to change all of the bad things that had been happening in my life and to help myself by helping others. Even more valuable than that patch are the bonds that developed from that weekend. Thankfully I am still in touch with many of my teammates from that weekend and they continue to inspire me to push myself and help others.

Words truly cannot describe how that weekend, with Eagles I had never met, changed me. There were so many takeaways and lessons learned and connections made that a novel could be written on the event itself. I am so grateful to be a part of Team Red, White, & Blue and feel  blessed to be able to say that this is my tribe and if you’re wearing an Eagle on your chest, you are my family.

Blog written by Jill Roberts

Backing up to a cliff face towards a 125’ drop seems like an unnatural act, doesn’t it? Well, actually, with the right equipment, the right guide, and the right group encouraging you, it can be a very rewarding experience. This was just part of my adventure at the 2016 Team RWB Mid-Atlantic Rock climbing camp, held in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia.

This was my first opportunity to be an active participant in a Team RWB event, and it proved to be unique in its ability to immediately create an environment of inclusion and acceptance. I’ve been to events and training where the presenter claimed we were in “safe space” while there, but this is the first time that, although I didn’t hear the term uttered by the leadership team, I truly felt the safe space created by their willingness to take the lead in being open, honest, and vulnerable.

Being comfortable in one’s own vulnerability can be very important when backing up to that cliff. After an evening of Pies and Pints at the meet and greet, we leapt right into climbing camp the next morning to learn the basics of tying ourselves off properly and belaying a fellow climber. No pampering here. The crew goes above and beyond to ensure your safety, but you have to get the basics down to get a sense of, and respect for, the technical skill involved in participating in this sport.

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Then you have to get yourself to the top of the cliff. Which brings me to the backing off part. I thought it would be much more difficult to take those steps back, but Jeremy (one of our ever tolerant guides) had me lean my full weight back in the rig once I was secured and, for some reason I will never understand, I felt instantly safe and confident in the system. I won’t say I thoroughly enjoyed that first time down – I was still a bit apprehensive – but I went back up immediately for a second turn!

After a top notch lunch spread provided by our hosts at Adventures on the Gorge, it was off to my first climbing experience. Well, my first climbing experience beyond the dumb-ass things I would do as a kid before I knew I was breakable, that is. Out of the three routes available up the rock face I chose the most difficult one……not because I was confident, but because it was open when I was ready to go and no one else wanted it. The handholds were small and difficult to find, I didn’t plan my route very well, and I found myself relying on the encouragement from below and the skill of my belayer, an experienced, retired climber. I slipped off the wall a couple of times, but made it over a particularly difficult spot only to find another difficult patch standing between me and my goal – the carabiners at the top of the rigging. My hands were shaking and my fingers didn’t feel up to it, so I let my belayer know that I wanted to let go and come down. I said it a couple of times.

His response? “I’m ignoring you.” So I motored on, finally getting mad at myself for not accomplishing this small thing that used to be second nature to me, and made it to the top. Yes!

Now Day 2…that was just plain fun. The climb site accommodated 5 routes (including a stove pipe), each with it’s own unique challenge. We were all able to ascend multiple times and even had a chance to belay for fellow climbers. I came away from the climb with a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. And the Day 2 rappel site? Well, take a look at the pics. The view is incredible. At first I was intimidated by the roughly 125’ descent, but I lowered myself about 20 ft, turned around to look at the world below me, and became downright giddy. Most of the rappel was past the rock face, and I took advantage of the mid-air hang time to fully take in that view, the sun, and the feel of the early autumn breeze. Incredible. Never thought I would rappel off a cliff. Never.

So many thanks to Team RWB, particularly Mike Paugh, Brennan Mullaney, and Dustin Sanderson, and to the skilled (and entertaining) staff at Adventures on the Gorge for making this possible. And a special thanks to Kellyn Cassell for introducing me to the RWB family and encouraging me to take on this challenge. Even though I started off feeling vulnerable and unsure, the safe space that was created by the guides and other Eagles at the camp helped me reach outside my comfort zone and grow over the weekend.

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.

 

By Joe Quinn, Director of Leadership Development

 

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world…”

Spoken in 1913, President Wilson’s words echo just as true today. These words resonate with the volunteer leaders of Team Red, White & Blue (Team RWB) all across the country. Team RWB exists to enrich the lives of our nation’s veterans by connecting them to their communities through physical and social activity. We’ve found that the best way to enrich lives and change communities is through local, consistent engagement and interaction.

This is made possible by our Eagle Leaders.

Leaders that are motivated, inspired and have the right resources and mentorship to be effective each and every day. Our vision is that Team RWB will have a leading role in transforming our communities — showing America what it means to start working together again, and start moving forward in a positive direction.

Since we understand the critical role that leadership plays in our organization, we will invest heavily in our leaders through the Eagle Leadership Development Program. As part of this investment, Team RWB launched the first Eagle Leader Academy at our Headquarters in Tampa, FL in March. The Academy featured 15 Eagle Leader Fellows (leaders selected to take part in a 12-month fellowship), over a dozen Chapter Captains from across the country, and a handful of new executive staff members.

The three-day Academy provided an opportunity for leaders from across the organization to come together under one roof to discuss Team RWB’s brand of leadership. Our leaders spent time working out together, sharing meals together, but more importantly, discussing our ethos, values, and culture, and what it means to be an Eagle Leader. The Academy opened with each leader sharing their personal story and their ‘why’. Why Team RWB. Why they choose to be a leader in the organization, and why it matters.

The Academy also served as an orientation for our 15 Eagle Leader Fellows. Here at Team RWB, we believe in the 10/20/70 model for learning and development: 10% education, 20% mentorship and 70% just rolling up the sleeves, and being given a chance to lead in a positive environment. Over the next 12 months, our Eagle Leader Fellows will be immersed in leadership training and development consisting of education, experiences, and mentorship. Eagle Leader Fellows will pursue a fully funded accredited certificate in leadership (or equivalent external leadership education) from top universities and programs in addition to the full complement of Team RWB leader development curriculum. Each candidate will also have full access to attend Team RWB Athletic & Leadership camps, as well as leadership seminars and summits. And most importantly, each candidate will be mentored by actively working on projects with their Team RWB Regional teams, to put their leadership education and experiences into action.

In the end, these Eagle Leaders came to Tampa to develop their leadership skills to go back home to enrich veterans’ lives, to enrich their communities, and in turn, to enrich the world.