TAMPA — Be advised: Blayne Smith will not pity veterans.
Not when they strain under the weight of a barbell as it starts to feel like Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is draped on their backs. Not when their lungs start to catch fire on the last 400-meter sprint of the day. And not when the so-called yoga pose he puts them in leaves them feeling like the hapless stand-in for a Cirque du Soleil contortionist.
For the West Point graduate and former Army Special Forces officer with tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it's not for lack of empathy. He's just executing the plan. Smith doesn't pity veterans because the homeless or addicted veteran, the veteran in real need of help, doesn't want our pity.
Smith, 36, is the executive director of Team Red, White & Blue, a Tampa-based nonprofit that has become one the nation's fastest growing veteran service organization over the last five years by redefining the term "veterans group." And for some veterans, by redefining their lives.
Founder Mike Erwin, who served in the Army with Smith, crafted the idea in 2010 while attending graduate school at the University of Michigan. He found himself wanting for the passion he felt in the Army. He also knew that other veterans were far worse off, and needed much more. Smith, who had left the military and was pursuing an MBA at the University of Florida while living in Tampa, felt the same way. He began serving as an unofficial adviser.
"The goal was to create one-on-one advocacy relationships for wounded veterans in their communities," Smith said.
Mission statement in hand, Erwin, now 35, with the help of Smith and others, decided to give the nonprofit approach a go.
One problem: the plan didn't work.
"Every veteran was signing up to be the advocate," Smith said. "Nobody wants to admit they're broken." They knew their plan needed revision, one of which was to hire Smith full-time. He rented office space in South Tampa. The next was to raise money, even if the organization wasn't well-defined. So Erwin and Smith assigned their volunteers the task of training for a marathon and other fitness events while raising money for the fledgling organization.
Smith was soon bombarded.
"Our fundraisers started telling us, 'Man, this has been really important for me. Training for the marathon and raising money for this program gave me a renewed sense of purpose, it gave me camaraderie, a sense of identity.'"
That feedback taught Smith two things: one, veterans don't all need the same thing; and two, those with the most acute needs are often the hardest to find.
"They don't self-identify," Smith insists.
It also revealed how other veteran programs, though well-intentioned, were missing the mark.
"We give them our box seats at a hockey game, and it was a cool night for them," Smith said. "But is that really helping veterans become happy, productive members of society?"
With the benefit of some research grants, the group found that what does help is good health, people to lean on, and a sense of purpose — some of the same attributes, incidentally, that the military tries to instill in troops to create esprit de corps.
Given the similar goals, Smith saw the value in some of the same tools: exercise and team building. Team RWB (as members call it) now has a much simpler mission statement: "Enrich the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity." Those activities include daily workouts, weekly fitness activities, monthly social events, and participation in local races.
With the help of social media, word of mouth, sponsorships and event partnerships (Team RWB will provide volunteers at races in exchange for free entry, where the group will promote the organization by wearing its "Eagle" apparel), the nonprofit has grown to include 85,000 members in 180 chapters around the country.
From his office, Smith calls it "flipping the funnel right-side up," pouring the resources where the most can benefit. Veterans like Smith and Erwin, for example, who just felt a longing for leadership, can become a chapter leader.
Others, like Chris Romeu, can feel comfortable enough to walk in the front door. After all, they're just working out.
"Team RWB keeps me out of trouble and away from my addiction," said Romeu, a 38-year-old Marine Corps veteran.
Homeless and hooked on pain meds, he found out about Team RWB while getting treatment at the VA's domiciliary program for homeless vets. Now he brings his kids to Team RWB events. Now he scans Team RWB's calendar for volunteer opportunities around town.
Smith sums up the impact as an ounce of prevention for a pound of cure. Romeu, employed now and living on his own, calls it, "one of the best decisions I have ever made."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Contact Randy Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org.