In recent years, several new veterans organizations have popped up to help our men and women in uniform transition from the service to civilian life. Instead of providing a place where veterans can get together to drink, these new organizations are looking to offer vets a sense of meaning and mission that they often lose after they hang up their uniform. My guest today is head of one of these new organizations. His name is J.J. Pinter and he’s the Deputy Director of Team Red, White, and Blue (Team RWB for short) — a veterans organization with the goal of getting vets and civilians together to work out.
Today on the show, J.J. and I discuss the issues facing vets that Team RWB is trying resolve, such as getting them reintegrated back into their community and staving off feelings of depression. We then discuss why Team RWB decided to make fitness their primary focus and why exercising with other people is one of the best remedies for melancholy and malaise. Finally, J.J. and I talk about why it’s so important for civilians to interact and connect with our vets and how they can do so through Team RWB.
- What is Team RWB? What sets it apart from other veterans organizations?
- How Team RWB got its start
- Why organized fitness is filling a need that veterans aren’t getting from other organizations
- How exercising together helps curb some of the negative effects of PTSD, depression, and other issues that plague veteran’s upon returning home
- Why so few vets return to their hometown upon returning from service
- The kind of fitness programs that Team RWB chapters are engaging in
- Why it’s important to get civilians involved in a veterans organization
- The benefits that civilians realize when joining a vets organization
- The community service projects that Team RWB undertakes
- The importance of community service to a returning veteran
- Why the original model and vision for Team RWB didn’t work
- The dearth of good leadership in America, and how veteran’s can help fill that gap
- The approach that Team RWB takes to leadership development and training
- How civilians and vets alike can get involved with Team RWB
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Team RWB’s research page
- Physical Activity and PTSD
- Exercise Interventions for Mental Health
- Aerobic Exercise and Behavioral and Neural Plasticity
- My podcast interview with Joe Klein about Charlie Mike
- Simon Sinek
- Brene Brown
- “Saturday Spotlight” — stories of people whose lives have been changed by Team RWB
- My podcast interview with David Danelo about life after combat
Connect With J.J. Pinter and Team RWB
Tell JJ and Team RWB “Thanks” for being on the podcast via Twitter
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. In recent years, several new veterans organizations have popped up to help our men and women in the uniform transition from the service to the civilian life. Instead of providing a place where veterans can get together to drink, these new organizations are looking to offer veterans a sense of duty and mission that they often lose after they hang up their uniform.
My guest today is head of one of these new organizations. His name is J.J. Pinter but he’s the Deputy Director of Team Red, White, & Blue, a veterans organization with the goal of getting vets and civilians together to work out. Today on the show, J.J. and I discuss the issues facing vets that Team RWB is trying to resolve which is getting them re-integrated back in the community and staving off feelings of depression. We then discuss why Team RWB decided to make fitness their primary focus and why exercising with other people is one of the best remedies to melancholy and malaise.
Finally, J.J. and I talk about why it’s so important for civilians to interact and connect with our vets and how they can do so through Team RWB. Great show. After it’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/teamrwb, where you’ll find links to resources that delve deeper into this topic.
J.J. Pinter, welcome to the show.
J.J. Pinter: Well, thanks for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: You’re part of a board of a veterans organization called Team RWB and Team RWB, it’s a veterans organization that is not like other veterans organizations. Can you tell us a little bit how it got started and what you all do that’s different from other veterans organizations that are other there?
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. For sure, Brett, and I’d be happy to. Thanks for having me. Our organization is a little bit different and it’s different in a couple ways but I guess I’ll maybe start with the organization, how it got going.
Our organization was founded by someone named Mike Irwin, and he and I actually served together when we were in the army but he was at grad school at the University of Michigan and was fairly recently off of deployment from Afghanistan, and, I think was having kind of a rough time with integration. And he looked around and there was a tremendous amount of support for veterans, but it all felt very episodic and I think he felt that, maybe it was anecdotal, that there was no kind of long-term support for veterans in the community, ways for veterans to get involved in the community other than, maybe, some of the traditional VSOs that everyone knows about.
So, that sparked some reflection from him and he said, “Well, I’m going to start my own non-profit and I’m going to start running an organization and it’s going to be all about kind of building relationships in the community and it’s going to be focused on physical fitness. And that’s going to be the way that we do it.” And the organization started back in 2010. It was initially kind of a mentoring organization, matching people up, and we quickly moved away from that model.
Brett McKay: It started back in 2010. So, you guys do this fitness thing. That’s one of the things, but why do that? What is it that the whole fitness thing, getting veterans together to exercise together, what need is that filling that veterans aren’t getting in other organizations?
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. You’ve kind of hit on it. The dirty secret of our organization is that a lot of people kind of think we’re a fitness organization or a running organization or whatever it is, and that’s not really what we do. What we do, as an organization, is connect veterans to their community. Our mission is “to enrich lives of America’s veterans through physical and social activity.” The physical fitness is just the delivery mechanism. That’s what we use to make connections to their community for veterans.
Our fundamental belief, as an organization, is … There’s a lot of negative outcomes that people hear about in the veterans space. There’s suicide, homelessness, and underemployment, and drug and alcohol abuse, and there’s a bunch of bad outcomes. If you have genuine relationships and if you have good connections to your community, you don’t get to a lot of those negative outcomes. The way we do that, the delivery mechanism, is physical fitness.
Brett McKay: You highlight research on the site that there’s benefits of exercising, getting people together, moving together. What is it about exercising together that actually helps these veterans, help with issues of PTSD and depression and things like that?
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. It’s got a multiplicative effect, I think, which is what is great about it. I think, at this point, that there’s nobody who disputes the fact that exercise is good for you, right? It’s good for physical health and mental health and stress relief. Nobody disputes that, but the thing that the group exercise does, we always like to say within the organization that, maybe short of alcohol, that sweating together is the best social lubricant that you can find. It’s a tremendous way to break down barriers and to build relationships.
Look at Functional Fitness. It’s a perfect example. The actual exercise is nothing new. My high school football coach would be doing those same things 20 years ago, but that’s been packaged up in a way that builds these really strong, tight-knit communities, and we’re tribal animals, at the end of it. They way our society is changing, we don’t have access to the community like we used to and Functional Fitness has found a way to package that up in a way that’s really appealing to people. And I think that’s one of the reasons why you’re seeing it be so popular.
Brett McKay: Right. That’s the secret sauce: getting people together.
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. There’s group, there’s shared hardness and group accountability and all of these great things, and veterans experience that kind of stuff in the military. Then you get out of the military and it’s not there so much, so they go looking for it somewhere else or you can have a tough time with your adjustment and not.
Brett McKay: Right. On your website, you mentioned earlier in the podcast, that one of your big goals is getting veterans integrated back into their community when they return from service. You had a statistic on your website saying that a lot of veterans, when they come home from combat duty, they don’t return to their hometown. Why do so few returning vets go home to their hometown when they return from service?
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. That’s a good question. I think that I can probably answer that anecdotally a little bit. There’s been some research we could probably go and point to in the notes, maybe, but I think a lot of it is less about veterans and more about social mobility in our society. A lot of veterans get out of the military and they go to school or they’re trying to find a job. A lot of veterans come from, if you look at where they come from, they come from small, rural towns and they come from the inner city. And I think the places they can go to school, where there are economic opportunity, I think, and I don’t want to come off as being an expert, to be quoting research here, but I think that’s largely why they don’t end up in the places from which they came.
Brett McKay: Going back to this physical fitness aspect, what do you guys do at Team RWB? What are organizations or chapters of Team RWB doing together? Is it CrossFit? Is it running? What sort of things are you guys doing?
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. That’s one of the things that’s really cool about our organization. We’re in about 206 cities right now and our chapters are all volunteer-led. We try to have just enough structure so there’s kind of a minimum experience that a member would have, but we want the chapters to really take on the personalities of the local leaders and the community.
It could be everything from Functional Fitness, CrossFit, yoga, or running are some of our core activities. Skiing, and surfing, and sandal paddle-boarding, and whatever the local leaders want to do. It’s a very bottom-up, grassroots approach from our end and we just try to take really good ideas and try to resource them and remove road blocks and obstacles and let the chapters really be organic and do what works for them locally. All sorts of stuff.
It’s pretty high volume, Brett. We’re probably going to do close to about 35 thousand events this year and we’re probably going to touch a quarter million people in those events, so there’s a lot going on.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s amazing. Another thing that makes Team RWB unique from other veterans organizations is that civilians can be a part of the organization. Why was that an important factor for you guys, of getting civilians involved in what is mainly a veterans organization?
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. It’s interesting you say that because we were one of the first to really do this on a wholesale way. It was actually kind of a controversial thing in the veteran community when we did it. But we just felt really strongly that if we’re trying to connect veterans to their community, what better way to do that than to have supportive members of the community as members of our organization?
We started that from the beginning and it’s been really good for us. There’s this whole concept of a civil military divide, which you could have a whole podcast just talking about that, but essentially, the military is shrinking over time and becoming more of a family affair and there’s this increasing separation between members of the military and general population. Some people would say, and I would include myself in that, that that’s a pretty dangerous thing for our democracy. This is one of the ways we’re trying to get at that.
The general public is really tremendously supportive of the military and I think a lot of times don’t know how to get involved or how to be supportive. You can just come be a part of our organization. There’s no labels. Everybody is just a member.
Brett McKay: I can see how this would help veterans because it helps having civilians involved. Helps them get integrated back into the community. How does it help civilians? I think you kind of eluded to it. I guess it kind of helps civilians understand where veterans are coming from and the problems they might have. Or just see that they’re just like regular people, just like you are.
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. I think there is a couple ways. There is the member-to-member interaction that you’re referencing, Brett, where it gives an opportunity for members of the community to get to know veterans and to realize that, guess what? Veterans are no different than anybody else. We came from the exact same places that the rest of our society came to and there’s less and less opportunity to do that. I think the number now is something like four-tenths of one percent of the American population are serving in the military right now. It’s just a tremendously small number.
Especially depending on which communities you live in, you might not have an opportunity to spend any time around someone who’s in the military. There’s that aspect, but the other thing that I think is more powerful is that our chapters being volunteer-led, a good percentage of the leaders in our chapters are civilians, so a good percentage, and some of our really really great leaders in a veterans service organization are not veterans. I think that that’s awesome.
Brett McKay: And besides the physical fitness thing, one thing that Team RWB does is bring veterans and civilians together to do community service. What sort of projects have your chapters worked on?
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. That’s also a really interesting question. A lot of it. I think last year, we did something like 35 hundred community service events around the country. There’s two components to it. There is the traditional community service that you would think about.
For our organization, we try to stay vectored in on things that are focused on our missions. On veterans’ issues or physical fitness issues, so that might be everything from volunteering at the Special Olympics, running an event at the Special Olympics, or working on a Habitat for Humanity build, or doing a veterans cemetery clean-up, or whatever resonates in the community.
That’s a really important part of it, but another really critical part is that we would look at being a volunteer leader in our organization as serving the community as well. So that’s another really critical way that people can serve the community.
Brett McKay: Right. And I imagine the community service aspect is an important part of helping veterans find their bearings when they return home to civilian life. Because, as a soldier, they had a mission to solve, but when they get home, they might not have that sense of mission anymore. It leaves them feeling a little lost.
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. It’s interesting. I’ll tell you a kind of funny story that I didn’t cover when I was talking about the beginning of the organization. Our organization initially started as a one-on-one advocacy model, where we wanted to pair up wounded veterans with another veteran who would be an advocate for them. The problem we ran into was that we had a tremendous amount of not only veterans, but members of the community signing up to help and we couldn’t find anyone to actually take part in our programs.
We had all these people who wanted to sign up to be advocates or sign up to be mentors, and no one to actually be mentored or be advocated for. Following that, we worked with a major consulting company to really tighten down our business model and they did a bunch of survey work for us. This isn’t unique to our organization, but there’s a tremendous sense or desire to continue service or serving for veterans when they leave the military. This is a way they can do that. You can continue to serve in your community.
Community service, to be perfectly honest, Brett, that wasn’t something we really wanted to be involved in as an organization. We just kind of said, “You know what? Let’s stick to our mission and there’s other great organizations that do community service and we can just pair up with one of them.” But there was such a rush and ground swell from our members saying, “We want to do community service. We want to do community service,” that we finally just embraced it and put our arms around it. We’re doing a ton of it now.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We had the author of “Charlie Mike” on the podcast a couple months ago talking about some of these other veterans organizations that are more service-oriented and he just talked about, yeah, a lot of the complaints our veterans have is they’re appreciative of the support, but they don’t want to feel like a victim or they need to be coddled. These guys are soldiers. They want to help. They want to serve. They want to do the thing that they’re trained to do.
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. What I look at, and this is maybe a little bit too soon right now, but I think most people would say that there’s probably, when you look at the national level or regional level or even your local level, I think most people would say that there’s probably not enough good leadership in America. You can either lament that or, what we would say, especially to veterans, you can be part of the solution here.
Go back and look at the greatest generation. These folks grew up in the Great Depression, they went off and won World War II and Korea. Then they came back and became titans of industry in our country. There’s no reason why our generation of veterans can’t do that exact same thing.
We’re very adamant about, veterans aren’t victims. Go be involved in your community. Be a leader in our organization if you don’t want to do that. Get on your local school board. Coach youth sports. Be deacon in your church. Volunteer for Big Brothers, Big Sisters. And people are doing it because there’s this desire to serve. We just fundamentally reject that kind of victimization and try to take a different approach to it.
Brett McKay: And speaking of leadership, you all also … You guys wear a lot of hats. You do the fitness component, you do the community service component, but you also do leadership development within Team RWB. That’s a major component. What’s the Team RWB approach to leadership development? Is it taking military leadership principles and showing veterans and civilians how to apply them to civilian life? Or is it something else.
J.J. Pinter: No. It actually couldn’t be any farther from taking military leadership principles. The way it started was our … kind of the bread and butter of our organization are our chapters. That’s where the meat of what we do happen. That’s where we connect veterans to their community. That’s where the physical fitness happens.
But, we’re a volunteer-led organization and we recognized early on that if we were going to grow and become what we know the organization can become, we’ve got to have a pipeline of really good volunteer leaders to run these chapters. From there, we started a leadership development program a few years ago and it’s one of our two core programs now, and we’re trying to, full disclosure, we want to grow leaders to help grow our chapters, but we also want to make our communities better and to make our members better. So, we’ve made some tremendous investments in our leadership development program for those reasons.
I guess to maybe answer your question more specifically about the content, no, it’s all self-developed and we kind of take a needs-based reverse-engineer approach to this and it’s very unmilitary in its approach. Our leadership development is all about building genuine relationships and we try to develop leaders that are empathetic and authentic and loyal.
The building block is these genuine relationships in our organization. So, most of it is self-developed content, but we do work with a couple of other well-known parties and have plucked out things, Simon Sinek and Brene Brown to name two of the biggest ones that people may have heard of, but it’s all self-developed internally.
Brett McKay: How can people get involved or take part in the leadership development? Is it just becoming a part of the Team RWB organization and then signing up for a course? Is it online? Is it, you get together?
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. You join the organization and just show up and come to an event. Then, it’s just you raising your hand and saying, “I want to be a leader in the organization.” And then, that kind of starts you getting in the pipeline of being a leader. It’s not episodic. This is ever-evolving and it’s a big focus of ours for 2017, but we have a leader experience that’s a combination of our own self-developed e-learning platform with different modules and experiential leadership, doing things in person at Eagle Leader Academies and athletic camps. We get you into the pipeline, which is a multi-year experience.
Brett McKay: Well, J.J., can you give us any specific examples of a veteran or veterans’ life who was transformed by Team RWB?
J.J. Pinter: I think, out of safety, I won’t answer that specifically ’cause I think that’s kind of like picking your kids, but what I would say is that on our website, we have a weekly blog and our members write in and write their own blogs about how our organization has changed their life. There’s a new one every Saturday. We call it the Saturday Member Spotlight. I would say for anyone to go and scroll through those if they like. There are more than you want to read.
Brett McKay: How many members are a part of Team RWB now? It started in 2010. You’ve mentioned there’s like hundreds of thousands of events you’re doing, so how many people are in this thing?
J.J. Pinter: Currently we have about 110 thousand members and about 60 to 65 percent of those are veterans. The rest are not.
Brett McKay: If you’re a civilian or a veteran and you want to get involved with Team RWB, how do they find out if there’s a chapter near them?
J.J. Pinter: You could just go to our website. It’s teamrwb.org and there’s a chapter locator on there and you could go see it’s got all the fancy-dancey stuff where it’ll geo-locate you and show you the chapters around you. Most everywhere that you could live in America, we have a chapter within a reasonable distance of you. We’re in every major metropolitan area. You could do that and you could join the team and someone from your local chapter will reach out to you within 48 hours and welcome you.
Brett McKay: And if there isn’t one? Can a civilian start a chapter if they wanted to? What’s the process there?
J.J. Pinter: Yeah. Absolutely. Anyone can start a chapter. If someone wants to be a leader, then we’re going to let them be a leader. If you were at one of our events, you would probably not recognize who was in the military and who wasn’t because we really try to make it a welcoming and inclusive experience for everybody.
There’s a starter chapter link on our website. You can go put in an application to start a chapter.
Brett McKay: J.J., What’s the future of Team RWB? Is it continuing more of the same and expanding it out? Or are you looking to get into other venues to help veterans connect with their community?
J.J. Pinter: No. I think we feel really good about our mission and we’ve done a bunch of research that really … we feel really good about the efficacy of it, so there’s not going to be any fundamental shifts in what we do. I think what you’re going to see is two things. We want to do more of it, so in more places, and we want to do it better in the places we currently are, and then you’re going to see just an increased focus of leadership development because we know that we have to grow internally the leaders we’re going to need to grow the organization over the next 10 or 20 years.
Brett McKay: Very good. Well, hey, J.J. Pinter. Thank you very much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
J.J. Pinter: Thanks, Brett. I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was J.J. Pinter. He’s the Deputy Director of Team RWB. You can find more information about that and get involved at teamrwb.org. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/teamrwb where you can find resources and you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. As always, we appreciate your continued support and one way you can do that is give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It takes less than a minute. Really helps out a lot. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.