LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. – By midmorning on Sept. 30, traffic was already thick along the Pacific Coast Highway. Sgt. 1st Class Ric Chavez stood on the sidewalk and peered through a haze of sea mist to where the road disappeared in a horizon of rolling, rocky coastline. He was looking for a flag – Old Glory, to be precise – which he and his teammates from the Fort Irwin chapter of Team Red, White & Blue would carry more than 30 miles to Oceanside as part of the national Old Glory Relay.
The relay is Team RWB’s most celebrated event, a massive undertaking involving more than 70 teams that collectively walk, run and bike the flag over a 4,600-mile, cross-country journey that begins in Seattle on Sept. 11 and finishes in Tampa, Fla. on Veterans Day. It represents the essence of the national organization’s mission: bringing together Soldiers, their family members, and their communities to enrich the lives of veterans. A year ago, the fledgling Fort Irwin team was in no position to take part in the annual relay. But this year, with membership growing to more than 200, participation was never a question.
The team preps for action as Old Glory approaches. The Fort Irwin chapter carried the flag more than 30 miles from Laguna Beach to Oceanside, Calif.
“We really made a drive for four hours to get down here,” said Chavez. “That’s how dedicated this team is.”
The devotion of the team’s members, both to the organization and to each other, is the key ingredient fueling its meteoric growth at Fort Irwin. Its appeal was on full display at the Old Glory Relay as teammates piled out of vans, their conversation light and familiar while they stretched and waited for the flag to arrive. They were mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors. The night before they had camped near the beach, hanging out around the barbecue. At its core, the team has created a true community, something that isn’t always easy to find, said Staff Sgt. Marcus Walker, who joined nine months ago with his wife, Sgt. Marvy Walker.
“In most senses, people think just because you live together, you have a community,” he said. “If you don’t interact with your neighbors, with people you would never talk to in any other case, then you don’t really have a community, you just have a neighborhood.”
On the south side of Laguna Beach, runners hand off the flag to Fort Irwin's second group of team members. Fort Irwin's leg of the relay included runners, walkers and cyclists.
It took many hours, and many hands, to build Fort Irwin’s “Eagle” community, as Team RWB members are known. But the team can trace its roots to Chavez. Stationed at Fort Irwin in 2014, Chavez felt that he was missing a sense of connection, and he self-identified depression. At the urging of a mentor, he joined the Inland Empire chapter of Team RWB. They, in turn, encouraged him to start a local chapter at Fort Irwin, and he began posting invitations on social media to run at the Blue Track. It didn’t start out so well.
“The first two or three times, nobody showed up. I was just out there all sad and lonely by myself,” Chavez said. “And then one time my run was over, and some lady came running up to me saying ‘Hey! I was going to run with you.’ She became one of the leaders, then she brought somebody else and they became a leader, and they brought somebody else and they became a leader.”
Runners from the Fort Irwin and Inland Empire chapters of Team RWB carried Old Glory through downtown Laguna Beach.
News of the team spread, and so did the popularity of their telltale red Eagle t-shirts. While they started out running, members soon expanded the group’s activities to biking, swimming, hiking, and community service. They now organize trash pick-ups and visit the veteran’s home in Barstow, and participate in national Team RWB events like the Old Glory Relay and Waves of Valor, a program that teaches veterans to surf. Families meet up for coffee and ice cream socials, and some members have even started a triathlon training program. In fact, there is usually at least one team activity every day of the week, said Maggie Chavez, who serves as the Fort Irwin chapter captain. And when team members travel to other military posts or visit cities across the country, they are often welcomed by local Eagles who are happy to go for a jog, grab a bite to eat, or lend a helping hand.
“It’s a family,” Maggie said.
Her husband, Ric, agreed.
“Our lives and schedules have adjusted so we can hang out with our friends more,” he said. “This has nothing to do about rank, or position, or where you work, or who your boss is. It’s really just making that connection with somebody and networking with people.”
During the Old Glory Relay, it's all about the flag and the team. The flag began its journey Sept. 11 in Seattle, and by the time it crosses the finish line in Tampa, Fla. on Veterans Day, it will have traveled more than 4,600 miles.
Joining a team like RWB was never something he saw himself doing, Ric Chavez said, but it has given him a sense of accountability and camaraderie. Anyone is welcome to come check out Fort Irwin’s Team RWB events, posted on their Facebook page, and stop by to talk with members, he added. Or, those interested in joining can learn more about the team on the national organization’s website, teamrwb.org.
“You don’t have to join RWB, you can come say hi and leave,” he said. “But the point is you made an effort to come say hi to somebody, and that somebody might be your next battle buddy, that might be your networking guy, that might be your next best friend.”