The Herald – Team Red, White & Blue
It’s nearing Veterans Day, and American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts scattered across Dubois County are bustling. Throughout the morning and afternoon today, they will honor the sacrifices made by men and women who preserved American freedom as well as those who are still fighting.
But last weekend, a group of 65 veterans and civilians assembled at OFS Brands’ Cool Springs in Velpen for a different kind of celebration. Armed with shotguns, members of the Jasper-Ferdinand Team Red, White & Blue gathered for a day of competitive clay pigeon shooting.
Use of the facility as well as all the ammunition fired and pigeons pulled were donated by OFS, and at the shoot, air force veteran and new Team RWB member Emily Meyer presented an American flag painting adorned with military service branch emblems to OFS Brands President and CEO Hank Menke. Veterans aren’t always thanked for their military work, but on that day, she felt the warmth of appreciation from her community.
And that’s what Team RWB is all about.
“It’s really inspiring, what they do,” Meyer, who lives in Huntingburg, said about Team RWB. “(I) just wanted to be a part of more things in my community and something that is strictly veterans-related.”
When military veterans return home from service, they’re thrust out of one world and into another. Readjusting to civilian life isn’t always an easy transition — especially for veterans struggling with the lingering mental and physical effects brought on from their time away. Reconnecting with their communities takes time.
That’s where the team comes in. The national nonprofit’s mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity on their own terms. In December 2016, that objective extended to Southwestern Indiana.
The local chapter is based in Dubois County and spreads to surrounding areas within 50 miles. Unlike other service clubs, both veterans and non-veterans of all ages are allowed and encouraged to join Team RWB. Jasper-Ferdinand Chapter Captain Josh Lange said the Dubois County team’s calendar is packed year-round with activities like paintball, 5K walks and runs, parades, flag raisings, bowling and more. Members also hang out outside of chapter-organized events at social events where they grill, play cornhole or cards and so on.
The group’s two most popular functions are its annual miles-long Sept. 11 Freedom Walk and Veterans Day clay pigeon shoot.
All are free or offered at heavily discounted prices thanks to a myriad of community sponsors and a $5,000 annual budget supplied by national organization.
“It’s the next best thing to a brotherhood,” Lange, who is not a veteran himself, said of the bonds formed between the group’s members. “There’s stories that we’ve shared with each other that our spouses don’t even know. There’s stories they’ve told from being overseas that they didn’t tell anybody except for the people that were there, and they’d open up and get it off their chest. It’s a very powerful feeling to hear them tell them [sic] stories. And they get emotional. You don’t understand it ‘til you’re sitting there hearing the stories. I don’t know how to put it into words. It’s great.”
Vets often find that life has changed since they left. People change. Friends move away and start families. For those accustomed to life in the military, the strict schedules and routines of that life vanish, as does the camaraderie that was present in their service units.
Former Team RWB captain and local group co-founder Eric Evitts first heard of the national group at the Run For the Fallen in Indianapolis in May 2015. He was drawn to the high energy of that chapter as well as the possibility of getting younger veterans more active with fellow vets and those who have not served. He recognized that an outlet like Team RWB was missing in Southern Indiana.
The organization typically charters chapters only in densely populated areas like big cities. But Eric and his wife, Angie, pushed and suggested the group be open to members in surrounding counties, and leadership agreed to the terms.
About a year and a half into the local chapter’s operation, Eric said a regional director told him that Dubois County is one of the top chapters in the Midwest — a region that includes chapters in Chicago, Nashville, Louisville, Cincinnati and more.
“He basically said from the support of the numbers we had, it was some of the top numbers that he had seen in a long time in support,” Eric said. “Which says a lot about the community, in general, is what I think.”
Though all veterans and civilians are encouraged to join, the group leans toward veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Eric looks back on his own experiences — he served in the Marines from 2006 to 2010 and saw combat in Afghanistan — he believes he could have benefited from joining the group after he returned home if it had already been up and running. Just knowing that there were people there to support and lift him up would have helped his own transition.
In addition to the activities the group offers, Lange said Team RWB helps members who are struggling with issues like depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts by connecting them to people who can help. Their peers don’t coax new members into talking about their mental health if they don’t want to, but sometimes, those conversations can start the path to recovery.
The most harrowing member backstory Lange remembers involves a former soldier who opened fire on a young girl in Afghanistan who shot first at him and his unit with their backs turned. That soldier had a young child at home, and when he returned to the states, he had horrible night terrors stemming from the incident. Team RWB Jasper-Ferdinand members directed him to counseling.
“If they get it off their chest, sometimes that’s the biggest thing,” Lange said. “Just getting it out. If they talk to one person, they might talk to a second person. They talk to that [person], talk to 20 people. And that 20th person might be the person that can heal them. Getting through the starting process of it all.”
He later added: “I think the more you try to push them, the more they resist and try to say, ‘I don’t need help.’ But once they’re ready to talk, we’re always here.”
Charter member Darren Patterson was interested in helping get the group off the ground because he recognized the value it could bring to the area. He enjoyed the connection and the camaraderie he got from serving in active duty in the Army for three years and in the National Guard for years after. When he retired from the military, he found he missed that sense of group companionship.
“My point is, once you retire, it’s interesting,” he said during the group’s Sept. 11 Freedom Walk earlier this year. “You would think after all the years of doing it that you’d just be like, ‘Man, I’m so glad this is over with and I don’t have to deal with this anymore. I can go fishing more, and do other hobbies.’ But you miss that part of it. And I think that’s what this organization does. It’s fun because it’s people that are part of the military family, but not exclusive to veterans.”
Family members and friends are invited to join, and that’s what makes it fun and exciting to him. It’s a pretty low-stress, low-key group — and that’s how they like it. There are no required meetings and no member dues.
Fellow longtime member Ralph Hughes is also a member of the VFW. He joined Team RWB to connect with others who share the same interests.
“Again, it’s not a veterans’ group,” Hughes said at the Freedom Walk. “Although there’s veterans in it, it’s not exclusively veterans in it. It makes it good that we all can interact.”
The group has grown from just a few members less than three years ago to about 300. Lange and Eric both said it doesn’t matter how many show up to the events. As long as they can enrich the life of one veteran, the activities are worth it.
“I personally don’t really care about the numbers,” Eric said. “I just care about contributing to the mission as a whole. If you have two veterans show up to do something with their spouses and they’re having fun, you may have changed their lives.”
Eric passed the captain’s torch to Lange in January. The former leader’s life grew busy when he returned to school, and he didn’t want to give the organization less than 100 percent. He is still a member and participates in group events.
Moving forward, Lange wants to keep the group on the same steady course. Eric and Angie said the group is in good hands.
“I’ve always had a love for the veterans,” Lange said. “A big part of it was a lot of the guilt that I didn’t serve. The way I can give back and say thank you to them and support them is the only thing I can do anymore. So, that’s basically why I jumped on board. It was to get support. And that’s kind of what Red, White & Blue is all about.”