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Team RWB helps veterans forge connections with their communities

Drew Brooks | Fayetteville Observer

Mike Erwin was fresh off a deployment to Afghanistan when he left Fort Bragg in 2009 to attend graduate school in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The next summer Erwin founded an organization that he hoped would help tie veterans to where they live and, in the process, provide a network of support centered on physical activity.

That organization - Team Red, White & Blue, or Team RWB for short - has far outpaced Erwin's expectations.

The eagle, as the organization's logo is known, is nearly ubiquitous in communities such as Fayetteville, where it can be found on the cars, shirts and hats of members.

It is a familiar site at fitness events, including 5ks and the annual All American Marathon.

And it's been seen on the national stage, too, including at this year's Super Bowl half-time show, when a member ran onto the field holding a shirt up to the television cameras.

A few weeks after the Super Bowl, the organization's membership topped 100,000 worldwide, Erwin said.

And according to a recent study by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, the organization is getting the results Erwin hoped for.

According to the study, Team RWB members report an increase in their ability to create authentic relationships with others, improved their sense of purpose and better health.

Erwin said the results show the organization is more than successful marketing and a flashy logo.

"We're measuring ourselves," he said. "We're measuring our input, and it's real."

Erwin, a major in the Army Reserves, has started another organization called The Positivity Project that works with schools to build character strengths, and also conducts leadership and management seminars across the country.

But he remains deeply involved with Team RWB, serving as chairman of the board of directors.

A former 3rd Special Forces Group soldier who now lives in Pinehurst, he founded Team RWB while at the University of Michigan, but he said Fort Bragg was integral to its creation and success.

Fort Bragg, Erwin's hometown of Syracuse, New York, and Ann Arbor each played a significant role in shaping what the organization would become, he said.

"It's been really important," Erwin said. "My experience on Fort Bragg helped inspire it."

The installation had a more direct role in the organization's success, too.

Erwin's first hire for Team RWB was Blayne Smith, who served with him in 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group and now is the organization's executive director.

And less than a year after Team RWB was founded, the Fort Bragg chapter became one of the organization's first when another 3rd Special Forces Group soldier founded it in the spring of 2011.

Another chapter, Team RWB-Sandhills, was founded in Moore County.

Erwin said both are among the most active in the 198-chapter organization.

The Team RWB Fort Bragg chapter alone has 1,700 members, said chapter co-captain Sarah Rogers.

"It's one of our bigger chapters," Erwin said.

One of those local members, Elyse Sprengle, said she found the group in 2013 while looking for a broader base of support after her husband - also a soldier with 3rd Special Forces Group - was injured in Afghanistan.

At first, Sprengle said she thought the group's focus was on fitness and hoped to find motivation with the group.

"If I was wearing the (Team RWB) shirt it would push me harder and I would feel like I was something bigger than myself," she said.

Sprengle was surprised to find fitness was just part of the group's focus.

More than that, it was a way for her to connect with people she otherwise may have never found.

Instead of just talking to the other wives from her husband's unit, Sprengle said she has developed a larger support system and found ways to give back through community projects and volunteer efforts.

"It's bringing civilians, military and veterans together," she said. "It's an outlet to help everyone understand each other."

Now, with Sprengle's husband preparing to medically retire, she said they are more at ease knowing that support will be there for them.

"It gives you a sense of family," Sprengle said. "We're about to relocate, and I know there's going to be a local chapter where we move, and I know those Eagles will welcome us with open arms."

Erwin attributes the organization's growth to its members.

For most of its existence, information about Team RWB has been spread by word of mouth.

Members are encouraged to "wear the eagle." And, when asked, they often are enthusiastic in their description of what chapters do.

"That is our marketing strategy, our members," Erwin said.

According to him, the growth took off in fall 2013.

"It went from 40 people joining the team per day to 50, to 60, to 70," he said. "By the end of the year, it was 85 people joining a day and that's through word of mouth."

Erwin was an Army captain when he founded Team RWB.

A West Point graduate who had spent three years, and two deployments, with 3rd Group, he was studying positive psychology under the founder of the discipline in Michigan when he thought of the idea.

It began with a simple thought about the roughly 200,000 people who leave the military each year, and how most of those veterans don't go back to their hometowns.

Team RWB wouldn't be a veterans organization. Instead, it would be an organization for veterans, Erwin said.

The idea wasn't to surround veterans with others like them, but to merge the veteran and the community. That would destroy the old stereotype of military communities as transient populations, and prove that those who serve their country also want to serve their local cities.

"Truth be told, we didn't know what we were doing," Erwin said. "But we tapped into a really strong desire to stay active and connect."

According to the Syracuse study, the foundation of the organization was in the thinking that "other people matter."

"More than any other factor, strong ties to individuals and a larger social network are the key ingredients to living a happier and more fulfilled life," the study's authors state.

"The transition from active military service to civilian life marks a significant disruption in a veteran's sense of social connectedness," the authors said. "Accordingly, RWB's mission to enrich veterans' lives by developing authentic connections through physical and social activity translates decades of multidisciplinary research, spanning fields of psychology, neuroscience and sociology in best practice."

Limiting the organization to only veterans would have been a mistake, he said. It would have been like adding another barrier between the military and where veterans live.

"Why make it a veterans club?" Erwin asks in retrospect. "Why not allow in those who want to help?"

Civilians, he said, had just as much to offer, and learn from, as part of the organization.

Today, Team RWB's membership is more than 30 percent civilians.

"You can't differentiate who are veterans and who aren't," he said. "There's something really powerful in that."

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