Most weekends, Brandy Mai can be found at a race course.
Half-marathons, 5Ks, endurance challenges—if there’s a finish line to be had, she’s likely got a number attached to her shirt.
Even if she doesn’t run, she can be found volunteering at the check-in table or clapping on the sidelines. For Mai, races provide a certain motivation that she doesn’t get from stomping out a few miles alone.
“If I’ve paid for a race or signed up to volunteer, I know I’m going to show up,” says the communications consultant and mother of four. “There’s also nothing like getting—and giving—those high-fives.”
Mai is also an Army veteran who counts running as her favorite “healthy habit” to counterbalance her struggle with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She began suffering from those conditions soon after she left the Army in 2000, and though she stresses that they are non-combat-related, they have inspired a passion for supporting fellow vets and active military as they navigate civilian life.
The former military public affairs specialist hosts a Veterans’ Breakfast the first Saturday of every month at Perkins’ Restaurant and Bakery off Highway 204, open to anyone who has served in the armed forces and to those who appreciate them. (The next one is this Saturday, June 7, at 9 a.m.)
Mai also serves as the community director for the local chapter of Team RWB—that’s red, white and blue—a nationwide organization that connects veterans to their local communities through physical and social activity.
With dozens of outposts from Sacramento to Boston, Team RWB organizes groups for running, cycling, triathlons, even yoga—anything that gets vets up and out of the house.
Over 2.5 million American men and women have been in combat since 2001, and PTSD, depression and suicide rates are at all-time highs. The Dept. of Veterans Affairs reports that 22 veterans and active military commit suicide every day, though that same department has tragically failed those same soldiers by making them wait interminable periods for medical and psychiatric help.
Studies show that regular exercise and positive social interaction can sometimes stave off the worst mental and emotional distress, and grassroots organizations like Team RWB offer opportunity to put that research in motion.
It also gives Mai another reason to be off to the races.
“My job is to get people involved and pump them up,” she says. “Even if someone isn’t as athletic as the rest, they can show up and be the cheerleaders. I’m like the morale officer.”
With 300+ Facebook members and 50 to 100 bodies regularly representing at events, Team RWB Savannah is rapidly becoming a famliar presence at local races. Dressed in bright T-shirts emblazoned with an eagle, many run with Old Glory flapping behind them, including athletic director Andrew Candler.
“One of the key points of Team RWB is that it attempts to give you the camaraderie you experience in the military,” explains Candler.
“I’ve been deployed several times, and the bond you have with people you’ve been to war with is a lot different than someone you’ve been to school with.”
Candler helps organize races and events along with chapter captain David Bevins, gathering groups to participate in “Workout of the Day with Warriors” Crossfit classes and the upcoming Dirty Up 5K/10K at Hunter Army Airfield. Candler is still active military, but he sees Team RWB as a way to give back to those who have already served and to the non-profit organizations that receive assistance from the race fees.
“Savannah is a veteran community because of Hunter and Fort Stewart, so if we do anything to benefit the community at large, it helps veterans,” he says. “And vice versa: Anything that helps veterans benefits the community.”
To that end, Team RWB also shows up for non-military-related community service events like the Special Olympics and will rally a group to assist practically anyone who puts out a call. But there is still a need for improvement within: Mai hopes to one day create a local non-profit that will help veterans easily find the education, job and medical resources they need.
“Savannah loves its veterans, but they really have to go looking for help. There’s no one place that can collate it all for them,” she laments.
In the meantime, Mai concurs that being a part of Team RWB can give purpose to someone who is floundering in civilian life.
“What military people miss the most is accountability, to have someone checking on them,” she says. “If they say they’re coming to the race, we’re going to be looking for them.”
Candler notes that athletic ability is not required to be a part of the team. Volunteers are always needed, and Team RWB welcomes anyone looking for a supportive environment to run their first race.
Still, if someone falls behind, he or another member of the team will go back to help them across the finish line.
“As we say in the Army, nobody finishes by themselves.”