Veterans’ new battle: Quest for life

The participants of the five-kilometer race were veterans of recent wars and relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. One completed the race on a motorized wheelchair, while another did it on a paraplegic bike.

The race, held under a brilliant blue sky recently, was just another activity organized by Team Red, White and Blue (RWB), an organization designed to help ex-servicemen and women return to civilian life through support programs and activities.

With over 71 branches across the country, the group organizes runs, walks, yoga, cycling and functional fitness camps every week— and get-togethers every month— to help veterans create a network and enjoy the camaraderie they used to have in the forces.

“The people I served with in the war are not in Washington, D.C. and if it were not for these events, I would remain locked up in my house,” said LeeAnn Schott, who returned from Afghanistan last December.

Schott, who first served as a Navy prison guard in Iraq between 2005 and 2006, and later as a gunner on convoy security, said she had overcome loneliness, which has been cited by health experts as one of the factors that fuel stress and depression.

In particular, the mission of RWB is to help returned soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The nonprofit with over 10,000 members and supporters in 32 states estimates that more than 485,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and mental health issues.

Indeed, statistics for the Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that 22 vets commit suicide every day.

RWB was formed in 2010 to help address that trend, said Lieutenant-General (retired) Frank Kearney, chairman of the group’s advisory board.

It seeks to help ex-servicemen and women with PTSD by keeping them engaged and linked to their local communities through the various projects it undertakes, including fundraising.

Many ex-servicemen and women say the military doesn't do a good job in helping them switch to civilian life when they return from combat.

For sure, a recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 51 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans think the military is not doing enough to help them get over life on the frontline.

Several vets interviewed said they have benefitted from RWB’s activities, including Brennan Mullaney, who served in the army as a platoon leader in Iraq between October 2006 and January 2008, and as a troop commander in 2009.

Mullaney, 30, now a captain in the Army Reserve, said he had found company and a chance to continue serving the country through RWB’s projects.

The team’s members volunteer services during disasters and take part in community projects like clean-ups and road construction.

Mullaney and his colleagues, for instance, helped residents of Boston come to heal after a bomb attack on a marathon they were taking part last year.

“In the military, I used to lead teams. I’m happy I continue to do that even today. Team RWB’s physical and social activities have helped me to keep fit and I feel I’m still important to the community,” the Cumberland, Md., resident, who is the captain of RWB’s Washington DC chapter, said.

The Post/Kaiser survey also found many veterans have problems building and maintaining relationships, including marriage. Over 1.1 million vets, statistics show, have problems relating with their spouses or partners.

RWB says it is addressing this problem by helping the vets bond with civilians.

Some vets have found fiends, lovers and even lifetime companions through its social gatherings and those who are lonely and do not wish to have human friends and companionship “have received dogs and others pets for company from some of our sponsors” according to LTG (rtd) Kearney.

The organization also honors the fallen. The recent race in Washington was partly in honor of Clay Hunt, a marine veteran who took his own life in Texas on March 31, 2011 due to PTSD and depression.

For her part Cathy Davis, who took part in the race on a motorized wheelchair, said she was happy to have found friends “who have accepted me the way I am”.

Davis, 47, was retired from the Army on medical grounds and she underwent a brain surgery in 2006.

Harry Misiko, a copy editor of the Daily Nation in Nairobi, is the 2014 Alfred Friendly Fellow at The Post.
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