By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– If you believe that supporting the nation’s military troops means more than sporting a bumper sticker on your car, or buying paper poppies in November, join the team.
That’s Team Red White and Blue (RWB) a nonprofit organization headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., that supports veterans as they transition from service member to civilian.
Today, with the help of Mike McElmeel, Peter Konrad and Ross Salinas, a local Team RWB chapter is now in the works in the Eastern Iowa Corridor.
McElmeel spent 22 years in the U.S. Army. He grew up in Cedar Rapids, and moved back there after he retired from service in 2004; but after 22 years of living away, he no longer knew many people in the area.
“Team RWB wasn’t in existence in 2004,” McElmeel said. “I began running, and that’s how I started meeting people. I met most of the friends I have now through running or other athletics. That’s the similar kind of thing we are trying to do now with Team RWB.”
Team RWB’s mission is to “enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their communities through physical and social activity,” the website shows. By hosting regular fitness activities, social events and other get-togethers, Team RWB members can offer healthy, positive and fun opportunities for veterans to get out, meet others and engage in beneficial pursuits. Engaging in physical fitness and sports are ways for veterans to help build meaningful relationships, renew their sense of purpose and share camaraderie. Also, physical activity has therapeutic properties that can ease symptoms of depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and stress.
But Team RWB is not just for service men and women. The team welcomes everyone who feels he or she has gifts and interests that can further the mission.
“Anybody can be a member; male, female, civilian, retired, active duty, national guard, because it’s really a community/veteran’s organization. Right now we have about 50 percent veterans, and 50 percent civilians,” said McElmeel.
The national Team RWB came into existence in 2010. It now has approximately 19,000 members in 90 communities worldwide, and is registering about 400 new members each week, according to its website. When he first head of Team RWB about 18 months ago, McElmeel realized that there were no chapters in Iowa. Now, there are efforts in Des Moines and Waterloo to create two new chapters in those areas.
McElmeel and his friends first began organizing the Corridor chapter in July. All of them were runners, so they naturally gravitated toward forming a running group. That led them to partner up with We Run, the retail shop in North Liberty that sells running shoes and gear, and whose owners– Kris and Brian Tharp– are not only avid runners themselves, but also teach running classes, actively encourage beginning runners and assist many nonprofit groups and community endeavors by sponsoring running events from their store on Highway 965.
Both Kris and Brian are also members of Team Red, White and Blue. Brian Tharp said they became involved when McElmeel, Konrad and Salinas approached him about using We Run as an activity location for a weekly Team RWB event.
“After they explained the mission of Team RWB, I was very interested, as their mission is very similar to We Run’s,” Brian said.
Also, Brian said, his recently-deceased grandfather was a World War II veteran.
“This is something he would have embraced and been very proud to be a part of. Team RWB is open to anyone wanting to support our veterans; what a great way for me to support those who have fought and continue to fight for our way of life. Kris and I decided it was a perfect fit,” Brian said.
Since that time, We Run and Team RWB have been spreading the word and growing the membership through group runs. Brian became the local team’s community outreach director for the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area.
But Team RWB is not just for runners, or even hard-core athletes, for that matter.
“We have been trying to reach out to organizations to see if there are people interested in joining with different interests, like mountain biking, and maybe we could do some of that as a group. Other chapters across the nation do things like cross-fit yoga. We are trying to branch out into other things, just to get people together. We have been in contact with University of Iowa to get student veterans involved. At this point, we are trying to create a support network.”
Since it is still in its first 90 days, the local team must meet certain benchmarks in order to be recognized by the national organization and become an official chapter, which is McElmeel’s goal.
“We have (established) chapter leadership, we’ve organized regularly scheduled get-togethers, but it’s also loose in that if you show up, you show up. If anyone goes to an athletic event, we encourage them to wear their Team RWB shirt to represent the organization,” said McElmeel.
In North Liberty, the team gathers at We Run every Wednesday and Sunday for a group run. A calendar on the team’s Facebook page– Team RWB Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Corridor– also lists area events in which anyone can participate.
There are no dues to be a member of Team RWB, no residence requirements and no specific criteria for membership, McElmeel said.
“We just really want to welcome everybody,” he said. “Diversity makes the organization better. If you have ideas, we want to do know what they are, because maybe it’s something we’ve never done before. We are also looking to partner with other groups to do service projects to give back to the community in more ways.”
McElmeel said as a veteran, he belongs to the traditional organizations such as the American Legion and the VFW, but when he attends those events, he is often the youngest member there.
“Young people don’t necessarily go to meetings, because they don’t like to just sit around and talk. They want to do things. They want to be involved. Even if they are doing something as a group, they want to feel they are accomplishing something,” he said.
That’s where Team RWB can fill a void, he believes.
“There’s the stereotypical vet that people think of, maybe the WWII vet or the Vietnam vet; the old guy. But we have a lot of veterans now that are my son’s age,” McElmeel said. His son is 30 years old and was deployed to Afghanistan. “People don’t look at them on the street and think ‘there’s a veteran.’ Maybe because they are young, they may be going to college, they may be working at Burger King; they look like everyday folks, but they have that military experience, and they miss the camaraderie. I think Team RWB fills that gap.”
It also helps the community get to know its veterans, he added.
“I think people are surprised to see how many vets there are out there,” said McElmeel. They are all around. With the National Guard and our reserves being mobilized into Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a more diversified group of people that have served lately.”
Team RWB membership is open to anyone. Just make a request to be part of the group on Facebook.
“I will send them a welcome letter,” McElmeel said.