After serving three combat deployments, Army Major Mike Erwin came home and saw something that needed to be fixed.
“I saw a lot of my friends who were people that I had served with in Iraq or Afghanistan kind of struggling to make the transition out of the military,” Erwin said. “I saw a lot of them letting go of themselves. They stopped working out and started eating unhealthy, drinking, smoking—just unhealthy behaviors that just don’t lead to happy and productive lives.”
Upon returning from war, Erwin was selected to go to graduate school at the University of Michigan, drawing an assignment that would keep him stateside for five years. Instead of looking at it like a break from the intense stress of deployments, Erwin saw the window as an opportunity to make a difference. He wanted to build an organization that enriched the lives of veterans by connecting them to their local communities through exercise and social interaction.
With his wife, Genevieve, due to deliver their first child, Erwin founded Team Red, White and Blue in the spring of 2010. “Looking back on it, it was crazy. Who takes $5,000 and gives it to a lawyer to submit IRS paperwork when your wife could give birth the next day?”
Erwin wasn’t alone on the project. His wife supported the idea and understood this was something her husband needed to do.
“She’s was like, ‘You know what, you need to do this.’ We collectively thought that it was an idea that had legs,” he said.
Erwin built a Facebook page and talked about Team RWB to anyone willing to listen. The group gained supporters and grew in its first year, but the momentum accelerated when the group was profiled on NBC’s “Today Show” in 2011.
“When we were selected … I realized there’s a compelling human interest component to what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re trying to give American citizens, whether they’ve been in the military or not, a chance to connect with veterans.”
Since 2011, Team RWB has taken off. The organization now boasts more than 23,000 members and 64 chapters worldwide. It holds numerous athletic camps and events designed to bring vets, active-duty troops and civilians together to interact and challenge each other. Running, rock climbing, hiking, CrossFit and triathalons are among the sports featured at Team RWB events. The organization also partners with the USO on trail running and yoga camps.
The participants at these events cover the athletic spectrum. At any given Team RWB event, one may cross paths with a world-class athlete, a disabled veteran and a civilian who just wants a chance to work out with a group of vets. The organization prides itself on being inclusive and it’s become a pillar of Team RWB’s program.
“We do that for a reason. … We believe that building a community requires inclusivity,” said Erwin. “We have people who’ve never been in the military who want to get personally involved. We have people who are on active duty and we have a lot of veterans who are already out of the military. What we do is just really basic. We bring veterans together with people in their community.”
Team RWB is looking to expand its membership, add chapters in new locations and add more sports to its menu of options. And, for a group whose membership is mostly comprised of active-duty troops and veterans, it’s no surprise the members are looking to serve. The group is working with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Special Olympics and other nonprofit organizations.
“Our belief is that veterans who are better connected in their community will not only be happier and lead healthier, more productive lives, but they also will become a stronger asset to their community as leaders,” said Erwin. “We’re helping veterans to be better connected so they can serve their communities better, both now, but more importantly, five, 10 and 20 years down the road.”
Chad Stewart is the senior editor of ON★PATROL.