Athletic club helps veterans find social outlet

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When John Sussman left the U.S. Air Force in 2014, he felt unsure of how to navigate civilian life.

“I needed a community,” said Sussman, an Air Force captain.

He found that in Team Red, White and Blue, a national organization that enriches the lives of veterans and military members by connecting them to their communities by hosting physical and social activities like running, marathons and dance classes. The group has 130,000 members nationwide.

Sussman joined his local chapter in Washington D.C., where he lived at the time, and quickly found it was a place where he could be around like-minded people who had been through similar life experiences.

“Some people come for a sense of community. Some people to get a little athletics in their lives. Some are interested in volunteering,” Sussman said of Team RWB. “We try to provide all those needs.”

Sussman wanted to carry Team RWB’s mission with him when he moved to Medford five weeks ago. He discovered the 600-member South Jersey chapter was looking for leadership, and volunteered to be the group’s athletic coordinator on top of his day job as assistant prosecutor for Burlington County.

He partnered with Burlington Running Club founder Aisha O’Donnell to host weekly 5Ks through the city’s downtown on Thursdays beginning at Third Street Brewery. Veterans of Team RWB run alongside their civilian counterparts in the Burlington club, giving them the chance to mingle with their military peers and community members.

The group is planning to run on Tuesdays in Mount Holly with BRC, and on Sundays in Medford with the Pineland Striders.

Something as simple as running a 5K can help veterans make new friends and feel closer to their communities, Sussman said.

“Some veterans come back a little lost. The may have lost the camaraderie they might have had in the military,” he said. It also gives a social outlet to military members stationed in the area temporarily, Sussman added.

The social aspect was part of what drew McKinley Williams, a 31-year retired Army veteran living on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, to Team RWB. He ran a 5K with the group in Burlington City on Thursday.

“Meeting other veterans is a good thing. It’s having those shared experiences and so forth,” Williams said.

Team RWB South Jersey’s captain Lynette Cavanaugh wouldn’t describe herself as an athletic person, but the group gave her an outlet to meet new people and manage her anxiety. She spent 32 years in the Army.

“It kind of saved me,” said Cavanaugh, who lives in Willingboro. “I think this could help even more people.”