It didn’t take long to realize how much I missed the Marine Corps. I got out in 2005 and found myself lacking. But what did I really miss? It wasn’t field day or uniform inspections. Barracks life had its drawbacks, but everything that was undesirable about it, there was always someone to hang out with and go do something with. A couple years after being discharged, I seriously considered going back in. But talking it over with a friend, I realized my decision was more about missing the guys than wanting to go back and live the Marine Corps infantry life.
Sebastian Junger recently published the book “Tribe.” He’s a war journalist and author of the documentaries Restrepo and Korengal. In the book, he talked about how many veterans come back from war and fail to adapt to civilian life, fail to thrive, fail to find meaningful connections. He argues that many times this is diagnosed as PTSD, but in actuality is a crippling disconnection from others in their “tribe,” the brothers and sisters they forged tight bonds with during military service and deployments overseas. He states that what is missing is the tight social structures that were woven into the military lifestyle. Even people I didn’t like were important parts of my daily interactions because I relied on them to make our squad/platoon/company work. After a 7 month deployment aboard ship, I knew most of my platoon better than people in my biological family back stateside.
Getting out, I struggled to find my footing in the social scene. Sure, I had friends from high school, but through no fault of their own, it was different somehow. How was it different? With my Marine Corps friends, we had seen each other at our best and very worst. We had lived in quarters so close and conditions so uncomfortable that I could tell people apart by their body odor- even at night.
I knew many of these guys during Operation Phantom Fury, aka the second battle of Fallujah. We had seen each other through more than a few near death experiences and had literally put our lives at risk for each other. This requires a trust that my writing cannot do justice by attempting to describe. It goes beyond what the average American experiences. Tight bonds are formed when members of a group have a shared experience, and especially through life-or-death situations.
Maybe what veterans really need is a place to connect. We often find these places in community college and university level Veteran Clubs, VFWs, and in the VA clinics.
But while these organizations have their place, can we really say that vets are readjusting to civilian life if they are lacking meaningful connections within their own communities?
Historically, Vietnam Vets found themselves blamed, shunned, and harassed by the American public when they came home from war. Understandably, they formed groups with the only people they could trust: themselves. Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans are welcoming vets home, even if they disagree with the war.
Today, the pendulum of support has swung back. I remember taking a Peace and Conflict Studies class at UC Berkeley. My professor asked me to present on my experiences in Iraq. Despite the apprehension, I stood up and told my story. I received a standing ovation from a room of students who were mostly against my war.
The communities here back home want to take us in, but how?
One thing many veterans bring to the table is leadership and the ability to maintain focus in difficult circumstances. Isn’t that exactly what boot camp was about? The ability to accomplish a mission and put aside personal discomfort is the defining skill that each service member learns in order for the military to function. The natural civilian counterpart to this is team sports. The stakes are not life and death, but the structure is the same: a group working together to accomplish what no one can do on their own.
After leaving the military, many vets transition to a community college. The top complaints I hear from student veterans are “they [classmates] just don’t get it” or “everyone is on their own program.” The team element is missing. So where do veterans find their new team?
Team Red, White, and Blue strives to “enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.” By the number of chapters that spring up over the country each month, I’d say they have figured it out. But it’s not just for vets and active duty military. As I stated before, I believe true readjustment from military life means connecting with the community. That’s the beauty of Team RWB – they also include civilians who want to welcome their military brothers and sisters and throw down on a trail run, bike ride, triathlon, or yoga session. Many of the civilian members have military friends or family members. The majority just love to work out and join Team RWB “Eagles” carrying the flag on a Saturday run.
Membership is free. Eagles meet up through Facebook and email blasts, which often include discounts to local races. My previous experience of vets groups were usually barbecues and pub crawls. That was fun for a couple years, but it got old. I’ve been a part of the San Francisco and Solano chapters for a couple years now. I have joined my fellow Eagles for a handful of trails races, socials, and Crossfit sessions. There’s a highly contagious, positive vibe and plenty of encouragement like- “you need to try this race” or “next weekend you’re coming with me on this awesome hike.”
After a couple of events, I knew I had found my tribe.
Athletes of Valor
Marines Jason Blydell and Alex Stone head up Athletes of Valor. Both of them recognize the importance of teamwork and structure for veterans. They also recognized that college athletes need effective leadership. Stone was an enlisted grunt. He left a lucrative career with Under Armor to launch Athletes of Valor because he saw the natural connection with vets and college sports. Blydell was an infantry officer and returned to the Boston area after his time on active duty. He saw Stone’s winning formula and joined him shortly thereafter.
Stone was an enlisted grunt. He left a lucrative career with Under Armor to launch Athletes of Valor because he saw the natural connection with vets and college sports. Blydell was an infantry officer and returned to the Boston area after his time on active duty. He saw Stone’s winning formula and joined him shortly thereafter.
As Blydell told me, Athletes of Valor’s mission is “to support transitioning servicemen and women from service to career by leveraging the power of collegiate sports.” It’s a win-win for college teams and veterans. For these vets, their tribe might not be an all-veteran community. It might be a college basketball team that hustling on the court together day in and day out.
Two of the things I like the most about Blydell and Stone’s approach with Athletes of Valor is that it brings value to both vets and the college teams. And doesn’t fall into the all-too-familiar trap of casting vets as a group of people needing pity. They recognized that by getting athletic veterans into college sports, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. This is the very definition of synergy.
Athletes of Valor is currently working with over 1,000 veteran and active duty athletes who plan to pursue collegiate sports after their time in service and hundreds of coaches who are seeking veteran-athletes for their teams. They are excited to have 15 veterans committed to play college football in the fall of 2017 and the list is still growing.
It’s in our DNA
We are hard-wired for complex social interaction in groups. It’s a big part of what makes us human. Junger talks about how for the majority our history, humans were part of tight-knit bands that hunted, gathered, made war, and cared for each other. Modern society has a lot to offer with the modern medicine and technology, but some of our progress has made us more isolated from each other despite the exponential increase in population. In essence, more online convenience with things like Amazon Prime and GrubHub means we don’t need to interact with other humans as much. (Ironically, I ordered his book on Amazon.)
We don’t need to spend the rest of our lives like Uncle Rico, talking about “the good old days” and snapping our minds shut to the possibility of finding those groups after our time in service.
Putting yourself out there and finding your tribe is worth it. No, that’s understatement. Finding your tribe is the difference between withering and flourishing in life. No exaggeration. Whether it’s swimming the frigid San Francisco Bay waters with the Nadadores Locos, throwing down on an epic knitting session with the yarn club, or playing a round of golf with friends, your tribe is out there. And if it’s not – start it! Others are waiting for you to step up and bring them together.
Who is in your tribe?
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