Team RWB: Soldiers Serving Soldiers
Ed. Note—Today we launch The Patriot Collection, and what better day to highlight our partnership with Team RWB, an iconic team and organization in the international sporting scene. Team RWB integrates veterans with their communities, and does a whole world of good at the same time. Today Chief Storyteller Brad Culp tells the team's story. We're very lucky at Wattie Ink. to partner with an organization that shares our Made in the USA values, and are very excited to assist RWB in their mission.
by Brad Culp
If you've been to a triathlon over the past five years, chances are the Team RWB logo is becoming as familiar as the Ironman M-dot. What started as a group of people running a marathon to raise awareness for wounded veterans has snowballed into one of the largest charity organizations in all of sports in less than eight years. One might say it's a remarkable feat—unless they've met team founder Mike Erwin.
In 2010, Erwin was a captain in the Army who had the idea of inviting 75 friends to run the Twin Cities Marathon with him. He wanted to get veterans and active duty military involved in endurance sports, but it was about more than the physical benefits. Erwin had gone from West Point to Ft. Bragg to the University of Michigan—with three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in between—and wherever he went, he realized that veterans lacked the everyday support they needed within their local communities.
It's no secret that the support system for veterans in this country is full of cracks, and Erwin saw endurance sports as a way to fill those holes. Upon its inception, Team RWB's mission was to help only those veterans who were wounded, but it has since expanded to support all veterans and active duty military with a hyper-local approach that's unique among military charities. It started by pairing a veteran with a local advocate, led by a lead advocate responsible for community outreach. The one-to-one model was labor- and time-intensive, but the power of these personal relationships yielded exceptional results. Team RWB chapters began popping up all over the country and even overseas. Each chapter created a community in which service members could share training and racing experiences and compete for something larger than themselves. For soldiers struggling to find purpose, Team RWB made it easy to discover that purpose anew, and right in their hometowns.
Pro triathlete and Air Force vet Brad Williams has been involved with Team RWB since 2011, and his life's work and the team's mission couldn't harmonize more. "I wanted to help enrich lives through physical and social activity, because I know what that has done for me," he says. "It's given me a way to give back to the triathlon community. I think that's something that's important as you grow in the sport."
An essential facet of Team RWB is that they don't treat those returning from war as wounded or broken. Joining the team isn't about becoming whole, it's about becoming part of a community that props everyone up and addresses the very real challenges soldiers face once they return home. There are many great military charities which organize events such as rafting trips or golf outings, but those are one-off events. All that approach accomplishes is to shelve a soldier's burden for a few days at a time. The ongoing nature of Team RWB, on the other hand, lends a steady, committed hand to veterans and their families.
"You meet people who have been in deep, dark places—whether from alcohol or drug abuse—and they've come out of those places because of Team RWB," Williams says. "I've met people who were on the fence of suicide and now they're off that fence. It's gotten them back to life and back to feeling like they're contributing to the world." The future is bright for Team RWB, but more importantly, it's a little brighter for soldiers returning home because of the organization's work. And it all started with Erwin and a phrase that has been his mantra throughout his military career.
"Mike launched Team RWB with an energy and spirit that still guides what we do as an organization in our chapters across the nation," says Executive Director JJ Pinter. "It's grounded in positive psychology. Mike knew that helping veterans build authentic relationships based on physical and social activities would increase their ability to transition successfully out of the military."
Williams echoes Pinter's sentiment, suggesting that the core of Team RWB's uncommon success is its founder. "He's just one of those great leaders," Williams says. "I've never had the opportunity to work with him in a military capacity, but he's definitely one of those people that can get people motivated to do the mission, and that's what he's done with RWB. It's a snowball effect that isn't stopping."