I guess you can say I have a soft spot for veterans and first responders. I mean, I am married to a Navy veteran and fireman. But my appreciation runs a little deeper than most people know. I’ve had several friends and people close to me join the military. Many of them went to war and have experienced situations that haunt their memories even after returning home. Transitioning from military to civilian life can be difficult too. Many lose their sense of purpose and routine that the military once offered. And similar to the military, first responders get repeatedly thrown into traumatizing conditions. As a society, I feel we see people in these occupations as invincible; nothing can affect them. But in reality, we are losing more of our veterans and first responders to suicide. Others continue living with depression, survivor guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction.
According to an annual report conducted by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, we lose an average of 17.6 veterans per day to suicide. Another study by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Resources in 2017 showed that more firefighters and police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty. Firefighters were least likely to seek counseling versus police officers and EMS and the trend continues.
For several years, I volunteered for a few different veteran organizations. I served on the leadership board on a local level for Team Red, White, and Blue which is a veteran outreach organization that enriches the lives of veterans through physical activity and social events. It was a perfect opportunity for me to show my appreciation toward veterans by giving back to the community with my passion for fitness. Watching a veteran train for their first 5k or having them regularly attend our weekly workouts was the biggest reward. It gave them structure and camaraderie which are usually lost when transitioning from the military.
Through this organization, I met veteran, Paul Laedke. Recently, Paul has co-founded the charity Team 2NDGO with the help of his buddies and co-founders, Jason Culbreth and Nick Nunnally. Jason and Nick are both veterans and firefighters. Team 2NDGO is a non-profit organization that outreaches both to the veteran and first responder community. Their mission is to serve veterans and first responders that are transitioning from one purpose to the next with the ultimate goal of identifying, supporting, and implementing that newfound purpose. The objective is to offer a variety of events that will engage multiple interests. They provide an environment that allows for identification, connection, and a heightened level of self-efficacy that comes from moderate physical activity.
After learning more about the organization, I couldn’t think of a better topic to write about for my first blog. I truly believe that 2NDGO will change the lives of many veterans and first responders. We know from a physiological standpoint that exercise lowers the stress hormone cortisol in the body and releases endorphins giving the body a positive feeling. No matter who you are, physical activity will have a positive effect on your mental health. I feel this organization with the combination of counseling and proper psychiatric help can be a perfect addition to improving mental health among our veterans and first responders. Ending the stigma around mental health among this community could potentially save lives.
And did I mention that the hikes and workouts are FREE? Yes, that’s right! This includes boot camp workouts led by Paul every Saturday at 8 am.
Paul was kind enough to answer interview questions about his organization. You can learn more about each co-founder and Team 2NDGO at www.2ndgo.org .
Q: What military branch did you serve in and how long was your service?
During my junior year of high school, I enlisted in the CT Army National Guard. I completed basic training at Fort. Leonard Wood (Missouri) during the summer of 1993 and returned for AIT after my senior year of high school. I served for 9 years. My unit, Charlie Company (242 Engineering Battalion) was located in Branford, CT.
Q: Tell me more about yourself as a civilian.
I have been teaching for nearly 20 years. My family is blended and consists of my fiance Kris and our kids; Joey (15), Nate and Will (13), Charlotte (11), and Jack (10). We spend a great deal of time hiking and exploring the outdoors. Outside of my profession, I have taken an active role in various non-profits over the years to include; Relay for Life, United Way, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, Dylan's Wings of Change, Team RWB, and Run Ranger Run. Most recently, two close friends and I started our non-profit.
Q: What was the most difficult part of transitioning from military to civilian life?
To be honest, I have had a very different experience than most servicemen and women moving to civilian life. As a member of a reserve component I never truly left civilian life. I can relay that once my service in the National Guard ended, I truly had a hole where that service once was. The camaraderie and sense of brotherhood are difficult to replicate. When you trust someone with your life it is difficult to find that level of trust in others.
Q: How has exercise and living a healthy lifestyle improved your transition. How has exercise improved your mental health?
Exercise has always provided an outlet for me that allows me to become more grounded while creating an opportunity to recalibrate. Whenever I have been consistent with my running I have experienced less anxiety and a higher ability to persevere during difficult moments. Last winter, I decided to remove meat from my diet and mostly stop drinking alcoholic beverages. Adopting this component of a healthier lifestyle has drastically improved my overall health. As a result, I have experienced less joint inflammation which is key to continue the exercise. I have found that keeping a routine does require time but it's an incredible investment and has allowed me to be more present with my family and friends.
Q: Tell me more about your veteran and first responder outreach organization, Team 2NDGO.
The concept of 2NDGO was born while my best friend and co-founder Nick Nunnally was approaching retirement from the Coast Guard. As the end of his career approached he began struggling with what was next for him. He had a fulfilling 20 plus year career and was uncertain about what he would do to feel a strong sense of purpose and fulfillment. We started talking about developing a non-profit to address just this. After many discussions, we decided to focus on the activity that grounded us most, physical activity. The research is clear, there is a direct correlation between physical health and mental well-being. From first-hand experience, we learned that we were at our best when we took the time to focus on attaining an improved level of fitness. Along the way, we were fortunate to connect with another veteran and co-founder, Jason Culbreth. Nick and Jason are both currently firemen for the Danbury Fire Department. Although our organization is in its infancy we are dedicated to developing and implementing a curriculum that corporations can use as a blueprint for training and retaining veterans and first responders that are venturing out into their next profession.
Q: How do you think Team 2NDGO can improve the lives of veterans and first responders through fitness?
We believe that engagement through physical activity creates a sense of community. Our target population consists of individuals that at one point had to meet strict standards of fitness. Incorporating this aspect of overall health creates a sense of familiarity that will resonate with veterans and first responders. Through various physical activities, there will be opportunities for team building which will facilitate the development of trust between participants. We hope that as the body gets strong, the mind will follow.
Q: Who can join Team 2NDGO and how can they join?
2NDGO is open to all veterans and first responders. Currently, we do not have a "membership" however if you would like to stay up to date with our activities please follow us on social media as well as sign up for our newsletter! We also encourage community members and family to take an active role in our outings. A sense of community is key for our men and women and we value the contributions that friends and family make to the success of our veterans and first responders.
Q: How can people support Team 2NDGO?
A great way to support 2NDGO is to follow us on social media: @2NDGO on FB, @team2NDGO on IG. Additionally, we accept donations on our website. Visit www.2ndgo.org and click on donate. We recently started creating merchandise and all profits are directed toward our veteran/first responder programming.
If you are experiencing negative and suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Help is available 24/7, free, and confidential. A chat option is available on their website at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.