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0000017b-35e5-df5e-a97b-35edaf770000Over 70,000 people in Michigan served in the U.S. armed services during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.Michigan Radio’s Beyond the Battlefield series takes a look at how post-9/11 veterans are faring. Beyond the Battlefield features, interviews and online video profiles, exploring issues like employment, entrepreneurship, and reintegration into civilian life. The series also looks at how Michiganders think state and federal governments are doing at addressing veterans' care, as well as the particular struggles female veterans encounter when returning home.

Veterans and civilians bond as they run together

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The model for Team Red, White, and Blue is simple. Give veterans and civilians the chance to run together in a relaxed environment and let conversations and friendships happen naturally.

There are no fees or forms or requirements to take part, and everyone is welcome.

What started with a few veteran friends at the University of Michigan in 2010 has now ballooned into 115 chapters all over the U.S.

Part of what veterans appreciate is that when they’re exercising with Team RWB, they can talk about their military experiences if they want to, but that’s certainly not a requirement.

Marine veteran Ryan Taylor is the Ann Arbor chapter captain. He says it can be awkward when his civilian friends ask questions about his time in Iraq.

“You know, they just don’t get it. I’ve known them forever but they don’t understand.  They’ll ask me, ‘Did you shoot anyone? What was it like?’ And you can’t sum it up in one sentence.”

Team RWB member Sarah Robb agrees. She served with the Vermont Army National Guard in Afghanistan.

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Sarah Robb is a serious runner. She served with the Vermont Army National Guard in Afghanistan.

“It’s awkward mostly because people preface it by saying, ‘I don’t mean to be rude or do you mind if I ask…’”

Robb says she often doesn’t tell people she’s a veteran.

“I just don’t share my experiences with people. It’s personal. It’s deeply personal.”

But the vets say when they run with Team RWB members, it feels like they’re hanging out with their friends, even though they may be meeting the other vets and civilians for the first time.

In fact, Taylor became good friends with another member, Mike Lehnis, who was the previous chapter captain, and happens to be a civilian.

When Taylor was going through his recent divorce he had an especially bad day. He came home and his wife had left and taken a bunch of stuff from their house.

“I sat down on the floor and I just lost it.”

The first person he wanted to reach out to was Lehnis. He texted him this message: “My house is half empty. This is awful. I can’t believe this is actually happening. What am I going to do?”

Within 10 minutes, Lehnis showed up at Taylor’s house.

“He picked me up off the floor and took me to his house and I stayed over there for the next few days,” says Taylor.

That gesture was a big deal.

Organizers with Team RWB say they see veterans go through big transformations with this program.  Members often evolve from being isolated and out of shape, to more social and happier. And that’s the point.

Taylor says if he had not found this organization, he’d be that guy who liked to drink at night, and wake up hungover, and sit around the house eating pizza during the day. But this group gives him something to be excited about and to look forward to.

He wasn’t able to run a mile when he joined, and not that long ago he ran a marathon.

After Taylor left the Marines, he said something was missing in his life. But now that he’s found Team RWB, he says it’s made him whole again. 

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