On Veterans Day this Friday, an American flag will end a 4,216-mile journey in Tampa, Florida, after passing through 10 states, including Arizona, in the Old Glory Relay.
Through 62 teams of runners, bikers and walkers, the torch-style relay will have passed through the hands of about 3,000 people by the time it finishes the journey, which began on Sept. 11 in Redmond, Wash.
Phoenix ran its leg on Oct. 4, carrying the flag through Tempe, then overnight to a team from Tucson, waiting to continue the mission as the sun rose near Picacho Peak on Oct. 5.
The relay is one of the biggest fundraisers for Team Red White and Blue, which course director Donnie Starling describes as "a veterans-serving non-profit that enriches the lives of American veterans through social and physical activities.” Though the relay is free to enter, a combination of crowdfunding and donations helped to raise $436,000 from last year's event.
A healthy environment for vets
For Marine Corps veteran and Phoenix Team RWB captain Juan Jimenez, the impact is personal. Jimenez ran Old Glory into Tempe before stopping for a social event with relay participants and supporters.
"I served six years in the military, I get out of the military and I'm going to college," Jimenez says. "Here I am as a freshman in college as a 22-year-old when everybody that's around me are a bunch of 18-year-old freshmen. So obviously, we haven't had the same experiences in life. On the weekends, all they're thinking about is where am I gonna go to have a good time, and I'm thinking where am I gonna go to study. Because if I don't study, and I don't get my degree, I already know what's out there for me."
Jimenez says he spent that time without many friends, and the consequences of isolation and seeking out the company of mostly other veterans can be dark. It's a familiar situation to many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one for which many find themselves unprepared.
"Next thing you know, you're having a couple of beers, and now you're thinking about what happened overseas, and your mind isn't right." Jimenez says. "After a while, you come to think about it and it's like, man, this probably isn't healthy."
'I was just hooked'
But trail running is. So is training for a 5K, or a marathon, or a triathlon. And it's those activities, in a mixed environment of civilians and veterans, where they can talk and relate about the interests they share, that Team RWB and the Old Glory Relay offers.
For Shawn Cleary, who delivered the flag to the Tucson team to finish out the Phoenix leg, it's also an opportunity to get to know a culture he wasn't a part of as a civilian, but had always respected as a military child.
"My life before Team RWB was kind of a college lifestyle," Cleary says. "It started about two and a half years ago, I wanted to get healthy again, and I was starting to run." A friend suggested Cleary run with team RWB. "I was just hooked," he says.
Cleary and Jimenez now train for triathlons together, and help others who ask for it. But, they say the ones who benefit most from helping others are themselves.