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. —Mark Taylor
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.
“In Utah we’re still just an organizing committee,” Francese said of the group that can be found online at teamrwb.org or Facebook.com/TeamRWBSaltLakeCity. “Once you get to chapter level, you have a budget so you can pay for things — race-entry fees for veterans, running or cycling gear, food for events, things like that.”
Team Red, White & Blue hosts about a half-dozen athletic camps, including rock climbing, yoga, trail running, functional fitness and triathlon training. The local groups raise enough money to fly veterans to the sites, put them up for a few days, and allow them to train with professional athletes. Then those veterans go home and host clinics for their own RWB chapter teammates.
Francese, who is a successful dentist in New York, said the group allows nonmilitary citizens to show their appreciation and support to veterans in a way that enriches the lives of those who've served and those who want to express gratitude for that service.
“Citizens can also help influence veterans when they come back,” Francese said. “They can help them see you don’t have to be worried in a crowd, you don’t have to be afraid of a narrow ally. It just reminds them what it’s like to be an everyday American. It lets them know there are people who care. We hear it all the time, ‘Thank you for your service.’ But it means much more for veterans when they actually see civilians, who haven’t been in the military, actually being there, being present with them, showing them that they care for them in a direct way.
"When they see civilians participating, they feel like what they served for, our freedoms and protecting America, they feel like they are more appreciated.”
Taylor said in just two months, participating in the fledgling Salt Lake chapter of RWB has changed his life in many ways.
“Just my attitude, I’m much more upbeat,” he said. “I ... thrive for life. I really do attribute it all to this organization.”
Taylor is one of the lucky ones. Some former soldiers struggle in silence, and in the worst cases, they end up taking their own lives. Since October 2013, 15 Utah veterans have taken their own lives. Currently 114 are on the VA's "high-risk list" and are consistently contacted by local officials.
Both Francese and Taylor see the long-term solution in finding ways to help veterans assimilate back into normal life as seamlessly as possible. They both wish more veterans and civilians participated, especially in Utah where there are thousands of current and former active duty and reserve veterans.
“It does get a little disappointing because not very many people show up,” said Taylor, who leads a walk/run outing every Wednesday at West Jordan’s Veterans Memorial Park. “But the people who do show up, we have a great time talking and joking.”
Francese said that he understands the frustration as he and his wife were the only two participants for the first few weeks of the Buffalo chapter’s existence. Now they regularly get 30-40 people out for their Wednesday night runs, but with nearly 400 members, he’d love to see more support at everyday events.
“It can be frustrating, but we have to persist so that it’s there when people need it,” Francese said.
The group wears red shirts emblazoned with RWB on them. They also try to carry flags when they run.
“We run with the flag in honor and in memory of veterans, and in trying to bring attention to the issues they still face,” Francese said.
The Salt Lake Chapter might be small, but Taylor is leading a group that will be participating in a cross-country relay called the Old Glory Coast to Coast Relay. The relay will begin on Sept. 11 at the VA hospital in San Francisco and end on Nov. 9 at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Each chapter will run with the flag for a portion of the relay. Every day will end with a flag ceremony in which one chapter removes the flag, folds it and gives it to the chapter that will run the next leg of the journey.
RWB's Salt Lake chapter will participate by running from Escalante, Utah to Torrey, Utah.
“We want to raise awareness about RWB, and there is also a fundraising component,” Francese said, noting that many of the group’s efforts are paid for by grants or corporate sponsorships. “But membership has taken off and grown so rapidly, we need to make more of a push to raise money.”
But Francese and Taylor, as well as the veterans who gather with RWB chapters across the country, see the relay as a chance to remind ordinary citizens that military service costs many veterans much more than this country can ever repay. Taylor and his tiny contingent practiced running with the flag just a couple of days before this year's Fourth of July. The heat was stifling, but the runners, some of whom will represent the startup chapter this fall, were grateful for the chance to raise awareness about military service and the need for real support.
Taylor and a friend will run in Riverton's Fourth of July Country Mile 10K. They'll carry flags in hopes of building support for the chapter and this fall's relay race.
"There are millions of veterans still strugging, whether they're from Vietnam, Korea, Persian Gulf or Iraq," Francese said. "It helps to remind people that they're out there, and that there is something they can do to help them.
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