For Erie veterans group, camaraderie, caring mean everything
Erie chapter of veterans organization holds monthly social and physical fitness events.
Stephen Craker enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating from Corry High School in 2003.
He served from that September to February of 2012. His service included tours of duty during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Craker lived in Arizona for a short time after being honorably discharged from the Navy. There, he got an associate’s degree in occupational studies with a focus on diesel mechanics. He wouldn’t stay away from home for long.
When he returned to Corry, though, life wasn’t the same as when he left.
“I moved to Arizona and there was nobody there that I knew,” Craker said. “I moved back home. All my friends were gone so I was just, you know, I had nothing to do except sit home. Then I found these guys and my whole world opened up. I know it helped me and I’m assuming, I hope, that it’s helping other veterans.”
“These guys,” is a group of men and women from all branches of the military who meet regularly for social events and physical activity. Team Red, White and Blue — or Team RWB for short — is a national nonprofit organization that formed in 2010, when veteran Mike Erwin invited 75 friends to Minneapolis to run the Twin Cities Marathon.
Erwin wanted the team to raise money and awareness for a nonprofit that would support wounded veterans and their families, according to Team RWB’s website. But after noticing that there was a lack of consistent support for veterans, he decided to found a nonprofit organization of his own to address veterans’ needs.
Today, Team RWB is located in more than 200 communities across the globe. It has more than 137,000 members.
Its mission is to “enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.”
Erie’s chapter formed three years ago. Earlier this year, Craker became chapter president.
“What I always tell people is we try to build the camaraderie that the veterans had while they were in service, out of service with other veterans in the area and members of the community,” Craker said.
Veterans can face myriad issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, difficulty finding work or adjusting to family life.
“Knowing that there are other veterans out there, there are other people that are there to support them is huge,” Craker said. “Maybe they’re having trouble at home with family issues, maybe they have mental health issues. Whatever they’re going through, there are people who they can talk to. They aren’t going to a judge. They won’t report them to anybody. It’s kind of like a shoulder to cry on. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Those relationships are built through activities like trivia nights, which are held at local restaurants and bars. Veterans get together to talk, laugh, eat, drink and compete in trivia games. Relationships are also forged through physical fitness. For example, on Aug. 25, Team RWB’s Erie chapter will partner with the Pennsylvania Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home for a kayaking event and picnic at Presque Isle State Park.
Craker’s wife, Emily, is also involved in Team RWB. She serves as the chapter’s community outreach director. She’s not a veteran, but she is the daughter of one — a lieutenant in the Navy, Stephen Craker said. The couple now lives in Wesleyville.
The Erie chapter covers an area that runs from Pittsburgh to Buffalo. It has 284 members, Craker said. Most members learn about Team RWB from other members.
However, Craker believes people are starting to take a closer look at the team.
“We’ve definitely started doing more events with myself and my leadership team,” he said. “We started doing a lot more stuff and I think people are starting to see that we’re out there going to the different places and I think people are wondering what’s going on.”
In addition to its monthly events, Team RWB partners with two other veteran-based groups, The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon, on the Run As One, which was held in April this year at Asbury Woods. The event raised money for Team Rubicon.
The Erie chapter also takes part in Team RWB’s Old Glory Relay. This year the relay will be held on Sept. 11, starting on the Boston Harbor and stretching 4,300 miles to San Diego. Some 20,000 Team RWB chapter members will carry the American flag the entire distance over 62 days by any “human-powered activity” necessary.