By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsSeptember 21, 2017
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Sept. 21, 2017) -- They run, ruck, walk, swim, bike, row, kickbox, CrossFit and attend yoga and Zumba classes, but if you ask any member of Team Red, White and Blue why they joined, the answer typically has nothing to do with exercise.
It's about community.
Founded as a nonprofit organization in 2010 with the goal of enriching veterans' lives through physical and social activities, Team RWB quickly gained momentum across the nation with more than 127,000 members in 220 chapters.
Team RWB is all-inclusive and welcomes veterans, active-duty service members, retirees, Family Members and residents throughout the North Country. Jojo Israel, an Army veteran from Watertown, joined four years ago when the closest chapter was in Syracuse.
"I was online one day when I saw the Team Red, White and Blue website," he said. "I liked what they believe in, so I joined."
Almost a year later, he spotted a group wearing the distinctive red shirts with the eagle emblem running near Jefferson County Fairgrounds. Finally, a chapter had arrived to represent Fort Drum and Watertown.
"I just switched my membership from Syracuse to here, and then that same year we did a run in Oswego and met a bunch of vets there, and then they started a chapter," Israel said. "After that, we went to a run in Rome, met some vets, and then a chapter started there too."
Chris O'Riley, who serves as the Fort Drum chapter athletics director, joined three years ago after meeting several RWB members.
"I love athletics. But most of all, I love gathering a group together to do it with," she said.
O'Riley recently battled a late summer flu, and she said that she normally pushes herself to stay active through most illnesses. During a 10K race in Clayton, O'Riley felt her body shutting down after three miles.
"I'm usually the one who usually goes back after I finish a race and run with our teammates," O'Riley said. "I could not run, I cried, and it was awful."
Fortunately, fellow RWB member Bill Van Orman, whom she calls her "brother," was there for support.
"I've never needed anyone to help me finish a race before, but I needed Bill, and I don't know what I would have done without him," O'Riley said. "Now I get it. I know what it is like to give support and to get support."
O'Riley said that another person on Team RWB who truly represents what the organization is all about is T.J. Trujillo.
"He's retired military, transplanted here in Watertown and was just looking for that camaraderie that he had after leaving the Army," she said.
Trujillo said that, like a lot of members, he was simply asked to join the team.
"I said, OK, because there's a lot of good people who just draw you in and all of a sudden you're going to all these events with them," Trujillo said. "It's more than just running races and stuff -- you start talking with more people and you see the community grow."
Trujillo said that he enjoys volunteering at the Watertown Feed Our Vets Food Pantry, and Team RWB conducts a three-mile ruck event to that location every month with a collection of donated canned food. He said another great RWB outing is the annual 18.12 Challenge and Half Marathon in Sackets Harbor.
"We get to host chapters from Buffalo, Syracuse and all the rest of the teams coming in," he said. "That's one where you see a lot of Team RWB together. You'll hear a lot of 'Go, Eagles' as you're running."
Apparently, that happens even when he least expects it.
"I live in the Champion / Carthage area, and it's funny because I'll wear my red shirt running down some back road somewhere and someone will shout from the back of a pickup truck, 'Hey, Eagle!' It really does make you feel good. You're never alone out there."
While camaraderie tends to be the greatest reward of joining Team RWB, there is no denying that the assortment of physical fitness programs have paid dividends to many. Members attest that having fellow Eagles encourage them to try new activities has helped them shed weight, increase endurance and build strength and confidence. A monthly calendar is posted online for team members to select which events to support, and the variety is quite diverse.
Elizabeth Filkins, wife of a corrections officer and mother of two, said that she began running to lose baby weight. Her father served and retired at Fort Drum, and Filkins said that she had partnered with him at races. After she learned that RWB was not just for veterans, she joined, and Filkins said that she enjoys the volunteering opportunities where she can include her children.
"My favorite thing about RWB is that we are in a unique position to be ambassadors to the local community," she said. "Because of my father's service, we moved a lot, and while it's fun discovering the local area on your own, we are able to help Eagles new to the area know where the sweet spots are. We are encouraging new Eagles to form new roots to a long-established home or providing a temporary family or support system to those just stopping by before new orders."
Kate Vreatt said that running got her involved in Team RWB, but she found her passion with yoga.
"I've enjoyed activities I might never have tried without the RWB community such as spin class, CrossFit, swimming, boxing and kickboxing," said the chapter captain and yoga coordinator.
Vreatt said that she began running after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
"I had a doctor who told me I needed to get more active, and so I had a goal in mind of running my first 5K," she said.
As she began to run more races, Vreatt struck up a friendship with a Team RWB member and his wife at these events and joined RWB on his recommendation. Soon after joining what she thought was mainly a running club, she participated in a charity race one morning and then convinced a small group to run another 5K that evening.
"It was at the second event that I saw a bigger group of RWB all together," Vreatt said. "What I saw there were Families, Soldiers, Civilians, veterans, retirees -- there was so much diversity there, and everyone was so welcoming and wonderful."
Vreatt said that she was nervous about the next event, a Veterans Day CrossFit challenge, because she found the workouts to be intimidating. O'Riley gave her the motivation to attend, and Van Orman gave her the encouragement to finish.
"I remember I was doing pushups, and it was hurting, and I didn't want to do anymore," Vreatt said. "Bill got on the ground in front of me, eye-to-eye, didn't know me from anyone, and he was cheering me on."
Vreatt said that Van Orman supported her that day in a way reminiscent of her stepfather, who died in 2013.
"My stepfather was my biggest cheerleader and my biggest supporter," she said. "When he died, I lost what kept me anchored, because he was someone who stood by me and believed in me even when I didn't. To have someone next to me during that CrossFit workout who believed in me the way my stepfather did was truly powerful."
Vreatt said that her stepfather did not transition well after retiring from service, and she believes he would have benefited from Team RWB.
"I think his story could have been different," she said. "I don't think he would have suffered as much as he did, emotionally, because he had a lot of invisible wounds from Vietnam, and that was hard."
Vreatt shared these feelings about her stepfather while attending a RWB leadership training camp.
"I burst into tears, but I told my story to a room of about 20-25 of my newest friends," she said. "We did a lot of leadership training, but we also did some hiking and rucking. Every time I go to one of these camps I realize the importance of the physical activity and why it works within this organization. Watching a team come together and build those friendships that turn into family is why Team RWB is so important to me."
More than 50 members of this unique "family" recently gathered at Thompson Park for the annual 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, where they climb stairs to honor each victim of the terrorist attacks. This was the first event for Liz and Earl Bartley, who had arrived at Fort Drum from Fort Campbell, Ky., just days earlier with their 2-year-old daughter Annie.
"I was stationed in South Korea for a year, and she got involved first with Team RWB while I was gone," Earl Bartley said.
"I had never heard of it before until my neighbors told me about it," Liz Bartley said. "It's about enriching veterans' lives in the community, and that means a lot to us."
First Lt. Clark Eggen, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Brigade Combat Team, is also a new member.
"I played on a kickball team with a few RWB members, and they just brought me on in," he said. "I knew it had something to do with veteran outreach, and that's something I'm interested in."
Since May, Eggen has participated in a few 5K races, gone on a paddleboard excursion and filled sandbags with teammates during recent flooding in the area. Team RWB members will start a new volunteer project on Oct. 7 when they will conduct a roadside trash pickup for a segment of Route 3 in Black River as a sponsor for the Adopt A Highway program.
"They're really involved in the community, which is great," Eggen said. "It's really tough to find -- especially when you're displaced every three to five years -- this kind of group that takes you in right away and get that sense of community. I would say that is what's special about Team RWB."
To learn more about Team RWB, visit teamrwb.org, or contact the Fort Drum / Watertown chapter at https://www.facebook.com/groups/TeamRWBWatertownFortDrum/.