The local Team Red White and Blue group continues its efforts to give soldiers and civilians a chance to fellowship, make friends and be active while holding to the mission of battling post-traumatic stress disorder.
The organizers held their first gathering in April at Elkin Municipal Park with 27 people turning out for the activities. The next get-together will be this Sunday at 3 p.m., also at the town park.
“We don’t do fundraisers or ask for money from anyone, and 40 percent of those who join are civilians,” explained Bill Blackley during Wednesday morning’s Yadkin Valley Rotary Club meeting. “Daily there are 22 veteran suicides, and women are six times the rate of men.”
He explained to the Rotarians that there is little done in the way of transitioning for soldiers going from combat and service back to civilian life. “They may be shooting at people in a war zone and two days later on their couch at home,” Blackley said.
For him, the efforts are personal. As a Vietnam veteran, he said he was drafted and promoted to captain. “You saved me. Friendships and the organizations I’m in really make the difference. Staying active changes your life,” he said.
In comparison, he said those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan “are becoming immobile and having issues getting reintegrated because people don’t want to hear about the war.”
The key for Team RWB is to provide social and physical activity and foster building friendships for the estimated 7,000 veterans in the greater Elkin area. “At the poppy drive [the veterans hold] we see their wives and moms, and they say they won’t leave the house,” Blackley said. “Some of these people have had six deployments.”
The activity on Sunday will be a walk, or for those who wish to a run, with the gathering lasting from 3 to 4 p.m. Everything the group does is free.
For Kasey Nowalk, a member of the Elkin Public Library staff who is helping organize Team RWB activities, her involvement as a civilian is due to her personal connection to the military. “I have a twin brother who has served two tours in Afghanistan and is getting ready to leave for a third tour.
“He has good support, but a lot of guys and gals don’t,” she said. “I think there is the potential to help a lot of people.”
One of the programs Nowalk is involved in is called Talking Service, a five-session gathering which allows veterans to get together and talk about stories of war without sharing their own life stories. The Talking Service program is being held at the Elkin Public Library, and already 10 to 12 people have signed up. It starts May 19.
“It is a great healing time,” Nowalk said, explaining that it will be moderated by Richard Hackler, pastor of Roaring Gap Baptist Church and a Vietnam veteran.
Team RWB also will have a get-together during the May 14th Elkin Roots Music Festival at Elkin Municipal Park.
Hackler explained to the Rotarians his personal story and why he chose to get involved in Team RWB. “I came to North Carolina by way of Brazil. My wife and I were missionaries there.
“I’m a Navy veteran,” Hackler said, explaining he spent two years in areas of Vietnam where people “didn’t necessarily want to be at.”
He had two tours on a Navy destroyer which sailed in and out of rivers dropping land soldiers and Seals and providing gun support. “I had the dubious honor of being on the first ship ever busted for drugs,” Hackler said.
The situation was strained on the ship as, he said, those arrested stateside for drugs had a choice to either join the service or serve jail time, and many chose to join.
“Not every PTSD involved close quarter combat. It was the situations you were at,” he said. “People were hostile to you if you weren’t a drug user.”
Another problem for those serving is “America gets put in a time capsule. When we come back it’s changed and you’re not the same people you were when we left, everybody looks at you like you’re wrong. When you got off the plane, there were groups going around LAX looking for people who had been to Vietnam to beat up. When I got to Arkansas at home, people didn’t want to hear about it,” Hackler said.
“The thing I love about Team Red White and Blue is it is OK to let it out,” he said. “Bill and I refuse to let the same thing that happened to us happen to today’s veterans.
“In the military, we have the motto ‘No one left behind,’ we don’t leave someone on the battlefield, but when they return home, they abandon them,” he said.
Blackley said he’s heard from Iraq veterans at talks he’s done on PTSD that they get on the plane to come home and there is clapping and cheering, but “at home, no one wants to talk about it so when they get home they are isolated and they don’t want to go out.
“All they need really is socialization, talking and walking with someone who says ‘thank you I’m glad you are alive,’ and create friendships.”
Rotarian Trent Holbrook, who is a Marine veteran of Desert Storm, agreed there is a cultural shift when moving from the military service into civilian life.
“We have six or eight in our group who are now talking about it, they are smiling,” said Blackley of Team RWB. “All they need really is friendship. We can really help in our community.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.