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For the brave: Organization using sports to help raise awareness about veteran's issues

Published: Friday, July 4 2014 9:02 p.m. MDT

Mark Taylor runs with the flag at Veteran's Memorial Park in West Jordan, Wednesday, July 2, 2014. The group is training for a race in which veterans from across the country are teaming up to run an American flag from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.

Michelle Tessier, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — Even though Mark Taylor worked for the Veterans Affairs office in Salt Lake City, he still found himself yearning for a way to connect with other veterans in social settings.

“I was just looking for something to hang out with people, like-minded like myself, who have that military background,” Taylor said. “We think a little differently, I think. Just getting together with people, socializing.”

A couple of months ago he received an email that described a national organization that was trying to start a local chapter — Team Red, White & Blue. That group and its programs help veterans transition from military service to civilian life by bringing both veterans and civilians together in a group centered around recreational athletics and activities, as well as service projects.

Team Red, White & Blue's local chapter had joined up with another nonprofit group that helps combat veterans transition to civilian life, Team Rubicon, for the Run as One 5K, which raises awareness about suicide among veterans. Taylor, his family and his best friend showed up to the small untimed but friendly run in South Jordan, and he was hooked.

“It was exactly what I was looking for,” said Taylor, who now acts as the veterans outreach coordinator for the fledgling Salt Lake chapter of Team Red, White & Blue. “My best friend and I (both veterans) wanted something that got us out in the community. We looked at a few organizations, but most of them were just social, you know, getting together and drinking beer, which is a lot of fun. But we wanted something that was a little different.”

Taylor said joining Team Red, White & Blue and leading the group’s weekly runs has changed his life.

“Every day I wake up in pain,” said Taylor. “I was just really tired of laying around and letting life pass me by. That’s why this organization is so good for me. … My whole family says they’ve seen a change in me in just these last two months.”

Many veterans miss the camaraderie and purpose of military service. Team Red, White & Blue tries to give them — and their nonmilitary counterparts — some of that back with social, athletic and service opportunities. Recreational sports play a prominent role in most of the chapters for a host of reasons, from health benefits to team building.

It’s one of the reasons Chris Francese joined the organization when it first started as the chapter captain in Buffalo, New York. The former airman, who spent three years at Hill Air Force Base from 1997-2000, said he was moved to do something for his fellow veterans after hearing about the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland a few years ago.

He began raising money for charities like Wounded Warriors by running half-marathons every month. Despite his commitment, he felt a little disconnected from the people he hoped he was helping with his fundraising.

“It got to the point where I was writing checks, traveling and running," he said, "and while I enjoyed that, I didn’t feel like I was actually doing anything.”

Then Francese saw a television story on Team Red, White & Blue. The reporter said that buying T-shirts would assist the organization's efforts to help veterans participate and train for recreational athletic events like running, cycling or triathlons.

“I bought a bunch of T-shirts,” he said. “The founder of RWB noticed, saw what I was doing on my Facebook page, and asked if I would consider helping them out.”

Francese helped build a successful chapter in Buffalo, now 400 members strong. When national leaders heard that Utah wanted a chapter, they turned to Francese and his wife, Laura, who spend half their time in the Beehive State, to see if they’d help get a group started.

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