RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We are going to hear now about a popular program for supporting vets. Team Red, White and Blue is a fitness club started by a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghan wars, five years ago, in Ann Arbor, Mich. The program currently has 83,000 members and 175 chapters across the country. As Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris reports, one of the secrets to its success is bringing vets and civilians together to do something they love.
KYLE NORRIS, BYLINE: Roll into the parking lot of Gallup Park in Ann Arbor on a Saturday morning and look for the people in the bright T-shirts. This is one local chapter of Team Red, White and Blue. And I'm tagging along with chapter captain Ryan Taylor and member Sarah Robb for their weekly four mile run. Robb asked if I'll ever do a marathon.
No. Half maybe.
RYAN TAYLOR: That's what I thought.
SARAH ROBB: Never say never.
TAYLOR: I did half and I was like, OK.
NORRIS: Yeah, I mean, I'm open.
Robb served with the Vermont Army National Guard in Afghanistan. Both Robb and Taylor say they appreciate that people in this running group are non-judgmental. Taylor is a Marine veteran. He says when his civilian friends ask questions about his time in Iraq, it can be awkward.
TAYLOR: You know, like, they just don't really get it. Like, they - yeah, they're - I've known them all since, like, forever, but they just don't understand. Like, you know, did you shoot anyone, you know? Or, you know, what's it like? You know, and you can't sum it up, what's it like. You know, I mean, for me it was four years. I can't sum it up in one sentence, you know? You want to know what it's like? Go and join.
ROBB: It's awkward mostly because people preface it with, oh, I don't mean to be rude or do you mind if I ask?
NORRIS: Robb says she often does not tell people she's a veteran.
ROBB: I just don't share my experiences with people and it's personal. It's deeply personal.
NORRIS: She says the people here who run with her just get it. And nobody forces her to talk about anything she doesn't want to. The program has exploded in popularity. Army veteran Mike Erwin started the group, following his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says when he was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, he felt like a fish out of water, missing the military culture and his peers. He also liked to run. And he had started a group that ran marathons to raise money for veterans. But after veterans began reaching out to him on social media, he knew something else needed to happen.
MIKE ERWIN: How can we most effectively set veterans up for building connections and integrating back into their community is by making sure that we tap into all of the possible people who are interested in getting personally involved.
NORRIS: What started with Erwin, his wife and a few friends five years ago, is now a nonprofit based in Tampa with 16 staff members, a board of directors and thousands of volunteers. And the relationships that develop when people run together or eat brunch after a run extends into their daily lives. An Arbor chapter captain Ryan Taylor remembers one especially tough day when he was going through his divorce, and he came home to an empty house.
TAYLOR: I kind of sat down on the floor and I just lost it. And I sent one of my friends a text.
NORRIS: He sent it to a buddy of his, who was also a member of Team RWB, and who happened to be a civilian and not a vet.
TAYLOR: He didn't respond. He came over 10 minutes later and picked me up off the floor and took me to his house. And I stayed over there the next few days.
NORRIS: Taylor says that gesture was a big deal to him.
TAYLOR: You know, and the fact that he came over and did that and took me to his house. And didn't have to - we didn't have to talk about it. You know, he knew and it was - you know, I can't thank him enough. And he knows that.
NORRIS: Like many veterans involved with this group, Ryan Taylor says what was missing in his life he's found in this group. And that's helped make him whole again. For NPR News, I'm Kyle Norris in Ann Arbor.
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