On a recent Saturday morning, Bethpage State Park is empty and cold. The only splash of color on an otherwise snow-white landscape is the fluttering of an American flag in the distance.
Then a figure carrying it becomes discernible. He is flanked by another runner, and both are bundled up in ski caps and gloves and are wearing red shirts with images of an eagle emblazoned over the front. They are followed by a gaggle of others in winter gear, one of whom is also carrying a flag.
Team RWB is on the move.
That's RWB as in Red, White and Blue, and Old Glory is always along for the run.
"We always carry them when we run," team leader Nick Auletta, 34, a resident of Northport, said of the flag. He is slightly out of breath as he comes to a halt in the parking lot by the picnic grounds, after the group's 3-mile run.
Flags or not, in an era when the word patriot gets thrown around a lot, there is no questioning that these young men and women are the genuine article: Almost all of the 14 people on hand for the run on that late-winter day are veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They belong to the local chapter of the Tampa, Florida-based national nonprofit organization that seeks to provide healthy opportunities for military veterans to interact with each other and with civilians.
Most members of the national and local chapters, whose mascot is the bald eagle, are veterans, but civilians are welcome and encouraged to join.
Team RWB's scheduled activities include runs, yoga and CrossFit classes, bike rides and sled hockey games, as well as more traditional social activities such as barbecues and volunteer efforts.
The group has events almost every weekend, from the informal 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) Reindeer Runs in the winter, to major local races such as the Long Island Marathon in May, the Mighty North Fork Sprint Triathlon in July and the Hamptons Marathon in September.
While Team RWB may sound more like a social or sports group, there is a purpose that extends far beyond just burning a few calories.
"Our veterans have typically had issues with reintegration and are looking for assistance in bridging the military-civilian divide," said Auletta, who grew up in Massapequa, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2003 and served in the military for 61/2 years. "We find that our members that participate regularly have a renewed sense of purpose and connect with our civilian supporter members."
The national organization was started in 2010 by Army Maj. Mike Erwin, 31, a veteran of the post-9/11 wars and also a West Point graduate. Auletta heard about Team RWB from some of his classmates, who encouraged him to help develop the fledgling Long Island chapter this past fall.
Auletta and his wife, Leigh (who also graduated from West Point), were deployed during the Iraq War: Leigh served one tour and Nick did two (plus a third as a Department of the Army civilian after he retired from active duty). During his first deployment in 2004, Auletta led a platoon in the fighting around Sadr City.
Despite their busy schedules (the couple have three small children and Auletta is a vice president at a Uniondale-based security firm), they decided to get involved with Team RWB. In the six months since they joined, the local group has grown to 159 members.
"It's therapeutic for all of us," Auletta said. "We share common bonds."
His wife, who pushed a stroller around the parking lot while her husband ran, agreed.
"We're very blessed and lucky that we came back pretty whole," she said. "Anyone having a tough time balancing life . . . here you can feel you're not battling alone."
Indeed, many young vets are having a hard time readjusting, which is one reason an organization like Team RWB is so important.
"It's difficult for these veterans to try and feel like they're part of the community," said psychologist Steven J. Danish, a professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, who runs an organization that helps veterans develop life skills. "A lot of them really feel, and they're accurate in this perception, that people in their communities are often quite afraid of them because of the negative PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) stuff you hear about."
Certainly the fact that veterans face readjustment problems is beyond dispute. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans a day commit suicide. The numbers on PTSD are a bit more controversial -- various estimates place the percentage of veterans diagnosed with it at anywhere from 10 to 30 percent -- as is the diagnosis itself. Danish believes the number is actually about 12 percent. And while not trying to minimize the problem, he believes that civilians have a distorted view of what PTSD is, in part because of what he sees as inaccurate media portrayals of the condition. Like many, he objects to its classification as a disorder.
"Post-traumatic stress is not a disorder like psychosis or neurosis, or a disease," Danish said. "It's an injury. And you can recover from that injury, and many veterans do."
Still, they need help in doing so. Matt Gabriel, 27, of Commack, has faced the harsh realities of that postwar battle. He served with the Marines in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Gabriel earned the rank of sergeant before returning home with an honorable discharge in 2010. But as was the case with many of his comrades, the adjustment was hard.
"Three guys from my unit took their own life," Gabriel said. "That tore me up inside. I needed to get involved in some way."
In 2012, while living in Queens, he discovered the New York City chapter of Team RWB. The following year, when he moved back to Commack, he began working with the Aulettas to build the local chapter.
"I've made a lot of friends," Gabriel said. "It's just helped me so much."
The fitness factor
One way it helps is simply the regular opportunities to exercise that Team RWB affords. In the service, PT (physical training) is mandatory, so the exercise kept most service members in top shape. Back in civilian life, they lost some of that edge. Team RWB's regular runs and fitness activities have helped the veterans restore their conditioning, which in turn has helped them better manage the stress of readjustment.
"My fitness levels had been up and down since I got back," said former Army Capt. Tim Hendrickson, one of the participants in the Reindeer Run. Hendrickson did two tours in Iraq, returning from his second deployment in 2007. "This got me back into running," he said of Team RWB as he laughed and looked around at a snow-shrouded Bethpage State Park. "Never in a million years would I have come out for a run on a day like this on my own."
Hendrickson, 34, a Wantagh resident, commanded a platoon in Humvees who patrolled Baghdad from 2004 to 2005. He met Nick Auletta there.
"We were at a meeting and I heard another guy with a Long Island accent," Hendrickson recalled.
It turned out that Hendrickson, who was raised in Plainedge near the Massapequa border, grew up three blocks away from Auletta. They became close friends during their deployment, and after Auletta got involved with Team RWB, he invited Hendrickson to join him. After his first meeting with the local group -- in the decidedly non-fitness-oriented setting of a local alehouse -- Hendrickson said he was hooked.
Hendrickson said he had gotten involved with a more established veterans organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), before joining Team RWB, and developed an understanding of the differences between various generations of troops.
"It was good being with the older guys," he said. But, he noted, the experience of those who have fought in America's 21st century conflicts are different from those who fought in earlier wars.
"This generation of vets, you leave as an individual and come back as an individual," he said. "When you come back, adjustments can be difficult. You don't even know who the other vets are."
Danish, the psychologist who works with veterans, encourages more civilians to volunteer and support groups like Team RWB. While many of the former servicemen and -women have had readjustment problems, he said it's important to not assume that every veteran has endured traumatic, "American Sniper"-like experiences.
"A lot of those who serve are deployed having the resources to deal with what is going to happen," Danish said. "They're often well-prepared for what's over there. The hard part is coming home."