Though it can be difficult for anyone, adjusting to life as a grad student was particularly tough for Mike Erwin, an Army lieutenant who matriculated at the University of Michigan after returning from his deployment in Afghanistan. Yet Erwin was determined to ease that transition, so he started looking for local veterans groups focused around physical fitness. When his search came up empty, he decided to start one. Fast forward a few years and that organization, Team Red, White & Blue (TRWB), now has 90,000 members in 160 different locations.
TRWB isn’t your typical veterans organization, even if its mission—to enrich the lives of America’s veterans—might be. According to TRWB deputy director J.J. Pinter, among the group’s distinguishing factors is how it goes about achieving its stated goal: It operates at the local level, it emphasizes physical and social activity, and it actively encourages non-military personnel to join, with civilians comprising one-third of its member base.
“What we do as an organization is connect veterans to their communities. The how is through social and physical activities,” Pinter tells Free Enterprise. “Make no bones about it, we’re making connections. The physical activity is the medium, but it’s not the end goal. We use running, yoga, rock climbing, functional fitness, whatever it is—the physical activity is just the vehicle that helps make those very important connections.”
A former Army lieutenant, Pinter is intimately familiar with the kinds of struggles that military veterans encounter when they return home. War zones are punishing places, and the men and women who fight in them often carry the psychological scars of their service long after they’ve completed their tours of duty. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly one out of every 10 soldiers treated at VA hospitals who fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have problems with either alcohol or other drugs.
Pinter and Erwin find that connecting veterans to the people in their communities can have a huge impact on their health and well-being. Though many organizations try earnestly to help ease this transition, a lot of effort is wasted on addressing the symptoms of this epidemic rather than its root causes, Pinter argues. “When you reflect on all of the negative outcomes that you hear about in the veterans space—things like suicide, homelessness, unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse—they certainly need to be dealt with,” he says.
“But if you’re really going to move the needle and address those very serious issues, you really need to treat the cause and not just the effect. In our opinion, the cause of most, if not all, of those negative outcomes is the failure to properly connect to a community after you get out of the military. If you can provide a connection, supportive relationships, and a healthy lifestyle, you can greatly reduce all of those things.”
TRWB is as obsessive about its system for measuring its effectiveness as it is about its belief that physical activity is an exceptionally powerful, relationship-building tool. The organization is constantly collecting and analyzing data from its members, Pinter says. It asks its members about their mental, physical, and emotional well-being, and it relies on an internal metric called the Unique Veteran Interactions (UVI). “It refers to the number of times we interact with a veteran in a month,” Pinter explains.
“But those metrics aren’t nearly as important to us as outcomes,” he adds. “If we’re not generating positive outcomes as an organization, then none of that stuff really matters. To accomplish our mission we have to define enrichment, which, for us, comes down to having health, people, and purpose in your life. We also have a list of measures in each of those categories, and we do an annual survey where our members self-report their levels of enrichment. That helps us understand if their lives have gotten better since they first became involved with TRWB.”
So, what have they found? Well, TRWB’s data shows that there’s a very strong correlation between activity level—the number of times veterans or civilians engage with the organization—and levels of enrichment. Because of the wide breadth of people welcomed by TRWB, the organization is confident it’s helping a genuinely diverse group of veterans—of different wars, disability statuses, locations, religions, political affiliations, etc. Over time these relationships only grow stronger, Pinter says.
“We’re very inclusive, and we’re not going to be there for just one activity,” he says. “Our organization is based on this local, consistent model, so these connections I’m talking about aren’t built in one run. They’re built over time. It’s weekly running groups, or weekly physical fitness, or twice-weekly yoga. Physical fitness is the best social lubricant you’ll ever find. People are willing to open up to you when they’re sucking wind like they probably wouldn’t otherwise. It’s just a great opportunity to get people to open up and talk.”
This approach seems to be working exceptionally well for TRWB, which is helping forge important relationships between veterans and civilians across the U.S. and the world. Perhaps most telling is how TRWB members describe their experiences with the organization: They routinely report that they feel more connected to their communities, that their on-the-job performance has improved, and that they have lower drug and alcohol abuse than the veteran community as a whole.
Right now, TRWB is in the midst of its second annual Old Glory Relay, during which 59 teams of runners will carry a single American flag 3,540 miles across the country from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Along the way, celebrations will be held both on and off the course to further strengthen the connection between veterans and their communities. Fundraising efforts from this event help support the chapter events and programs for TWRB members.
Though TRWB has managed to roughly double in size each year since it was founded in 2010, it still sees a huge opportunity to have an even larger impact in the future. “In the near future, we want to get more people on board and bring it to more locations,” Pinter says.
“But if you look down the road, our more audacious goal is we think that veterans can make America’s communities better. We’re firm believers that veterans are not victims; they’re assets to the country. Leadership is important, and our country needs more leadership. We want to use our local chapters as a force for good, and we want to help more veterans become leaders in their communities. It’s as simple as that.”