Ohio group helps vets through physical activity

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CLEVELAND (AP) — For one Ohio Army National Guard veteran, the challenges of deployment to Afghanistan continued when she returned home, as she tried to adjust to a sometimes bewildering civilian world while coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Another vet who was in the military for most of his life, recently retired from the service and suddenly found himself searching for new motivation.

But these and other veterans facing challenges in the transition from a military to civilian environment have found a new outfit to join — Team RWB (red, white and blue).

The national nonprofit group, founded four years ago and headquartered in Chicago, is dedicated to easing the re-adjustment process for veterans through physical and social activities, and community involvement.

Those components are also intended to reduce the impact of PTSD, traumatic brain injury or other mental and physical difficulties associated with veterans' assuming new roles in the civilian world.

A Cleveland/Akron chapter of the group got started early last year, and the bright red shirts with the Team RWB eagle logo have become an increasingly common sight at area running races and other athletic events.

Matt Kisil, a captain in the Ohio Army National Guard, is chapter captain and helped get it started.

"I just thought the mission was really great," he said. "There are a lot of veterans service organizations out there providing things for veterans. But to actually re-integrate them back into a community, through physical activity, is a great thing to do, and represents a niche that other veterans service organizations weren't filling."

Team RWB accepts civilian members, which Kisil said is crucial to the group's mission of providing community members for interaction with the vets.

Thomas Beers, local Team RWB veterans outreach director, also noted that with civilian members, the vets "get a better understanding of civilian life, and the civilians get a better understanding of how veterans are coping and re-integrating into the community."

Beers said the group has about 200 members, mostly veterans, and women represent about half the membership. The national Team RWB web site reports having 56,000 members. There are no membership fees.

Group activities include running, canoeing, kayaking, archery, biking or just about anything that members suggest, Beers said.

"We're enriching veterans' lives through athletics, social engagement and volunteer opportunities," he said.

The activities provide a mission, of sorts, for formerly mission-driven people, he noted. Completing those missions provides a sense of accomplishment, he added.

The group also appeals to veterans who want to continue in some service-oriented work or activities after leaving the military. Beers, 39, of Mentor, said in his case that translated to working as a Cleveland Heights firefighter.

He said the reason he joined the group involved living with his self-described "personal ghost" — the feeling that he didn't contribute as much as an Army officer in the pre-9/11 days, as U.S. troops do nowadays.

"So this (Team RWB), for me, is a way of giving back, and doing so much for people in uniform who've done so much more than I could," he said. "If I can help one other vet with PTSD issues, or concerns, that's what I'm going for."

Eric Whittington and Lesia Wasio, joined by her service dog Athena, represented the Cleveland/Akron chapter of Team RWB in the Old Glory Coast-2-Coast relay that carried an American flag from California to Washington D.C. to raise awareness for the national nonprofit group that aids veterans.

Lesia Wasio, 30, of Lakewood, Team RWB provides needed help with overcoming the PTSD that hampered her transition to civilian life since deployment with an Ohio National Guard unit to Afghanistan in 2012.

"It has definitely helped in terms of opening myself up to people I don't know," she said. "When I got back from being overseas, it was difficult to adjust to civilian life. I was kind of nervous to go out and be around folks.

"Being part of Team RWB helps ease the pain. There's always something going on, always somebody to hang out with," she added. "I joined right away because it's a bunch of veterans, and we understand each other, and exercise is definitely one of my outlets for therapy."

When Todd Henry, 47, of Brunswick, retired from a 27-year military career in the Air Force and Army, involving several deployments, he noticed he lacked the motivation he had in the service to stay physically active.

Team RWB has "helped the transition to retirement seem easier, being associated with another group, that feeling of belonging, like in the military," he said. "In the military, you've got your uniform. We have our Team RWB shirts. You feel like you're part of a team again."

And once you're part of a team, there's a sense of accountability, like in the military, Henry said. You can't let the team down. "It's like leaving no man behind, in a way," he added.

Team RWB member and Ohio National Guard veteran Cat Hofer, 32, of Cuyahoga Falls, said she joined the group because its members "have that camaraderie that you leave behind after deployment."

Hofer spent two tours in Afghanistan. She started running during her first deployment. "Mentally, it helps me a lot," she said. "I can go out for a five- or six-mile run and it's very soothing, very therapeutic."

The Team RWB emphasis on physical activity appealed to her. "Running and working out provides an outlet for your anger and aggression," she said. "It's not only helping us, but everyone around us as well."

The group also provides a sense of the old camaraderie of deployment, Hofer said.

"It's hard, going from seeing them (her fellow soldiers) all the time, having their support, to not having them around any more," she said. "Team RWB has helped in terms of my adjustment. They're always there whenever you need someone.

"That camaraderie thing is huge," she added. "It allows a lot of people to come home."

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BRIAN ALBRECHT(Cleveland) Plain Dealer


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