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Army veterans racing toward recovery

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Dan Blevins enlisted in the Army in September 2003, after his junior year at Keystone Oaks High School, and spent nine years on active duty, deployed for stints in Afghanistan, Iraq and South Korea.

Mr. Blevins, 30, returned to Dormont and civilian life two years ago, hampered by foot surgery, and came to the same crossroads as many of his fellow military veterans: to adapt or to, in his words, "become a hermit."

"When you are discharged, your life changes completely," said Mr. Blevins, who was an Army cavalry scout. "There's nobody there for you after you sign the last paperwork and get out. It's easy to be trapped inside your house.

"You have to rebuild your life back home, and sometimes it's easier to become a hermit and sit inside or go to the bars and take to drinking. Rebuilding an active social life, and a healthy one that involves getting outdoors, can be challenging."

This critical impasse is at the root of Team Red, White and Blue, a national organization founded in 2010 to enrich the lives of veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.

Mr. Blevins joined the Western Pennsylvania chapter of Team Red, White and Blue last fall, and he's more than back on his feet.

Sunday, Mr. Blevins will be one of 38 charity runners "wearing the eagle" in the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and hoisting an American flag along the route.

For Mr. Blevins, who admits he spent his first year out of the Army "sitting in the house, gaining weight and being pretty much useless," it's a steep but welcome challenge.

"When I got out of the Army, I couldn't even walk around for a couple hours without my foot absolutely killing me," Mr. Blevins said of the noncombat injury. "Being able to run 26 miles would be amazing."

Kate Bielak, 38, of Natrona Heights -- an Army veteran herself -- helped found the Western Pennsylvania chapter in 2011 and now serves as the chapter captain. The local chapter consists of approximately 550 members -- two-thirds of whom are veterans -- and mobilizes around physical activities to integrate veterans with their communities.

"We don't look at veterans as victims," Mrs. Bielak said. "We don't look at veterans as needing handouts. We look at veterans as champions and assets of the community. The whole mission is not trying to separate ourselves. We're trying to infuse into the community."

Team Red, White and Blue partnered with Duquesne-based American Textile last year in an ongoing sales campaign for an "Americana" pillow. At a "carb-loading" dinner tonight, American Textile will present the local chapter with a $10,000 check.

"We are really happy to support Team Red, White and Blue's mission, both financially and with a little bit of motivation," said Patrick Seiffert, American Textile's vice president of marketing. "We think what they're doing is really important, and we're grateful for the service of our veterans; that's the bottom line."

Jack Ouellette, the executive chairman of American Textile, is a West Point graduate and veteran of the Vietnam War.

"We feel a particular sensitivity, if not an obligation, to help our returning veterans, because that's something that's very important to Jack," said Mr. Seiffert, who will be running alongside Team Red, White and Blue runners in the half-marathon Sunday.

Mr. Blevins, now a student at Robert Morris University, has taken over as service project director, using his connections through Steel City Vets to organize volunteer projects for the local chapter.

"Sometimes you [as veterans] go out and people are handing you free things and giving you sympathy when you really don't need it," he said. "You just want to be out in the community.

"Here, with Team Red, White and Blue, it's mixed with civilians and everyone is on the same level -- you never really know who served and who didn't."
 

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