April 14, 2015

How Running Changed My Brother's Life

I'm really excited about today's post! As I've mentioned before, my younger brother, Nathan, was in the Army for four years. He spent three years in Iraq, and when he came home, he had completely changed. He was very distant, and even though we live just 15 minutes apart, I hardly ever saw him-- maybe about twice a year.

I was very worried about him when he came home and seemed so different. I wanted him to get to know Noah and Eli, but he just didn't seem interested in spending time with us. I felt almost like we were strangers. And I didn't know how to fix that.

A few years ago, he adopted Bailey, a black lab. Once he took her in, I felt like I at least had a conversation starter--I could ask him how Bailey was doing, and if he needed someone to watch Bailey while he was away, my mom or I could do it. I was looking for any reason I could think of to make things "normal" between us, so we could have a closer relationship.

I eventually wrote him a letter, telling him I was worried and that I wished that we could see him more. I told him all my thoughts. After that, I could tell he really started to make an effort to come around more, which was nice.

Last spring, things really started to change for the better. Nathan asked me if I'd like to go for a run with him, because he wanted to train for a 5K. I jumped at the chance to spend some time with him, and I was so excited that he asked me. After that, about once a week, we would go for a run together. It was awesome to be able to chat without any awkwardness. He seemed happier than I'd seen him since before he left for Iraq!

He slowly started dropping weight, and getting faster at running. I ran his first 5K with him, where he left me in the dust before the finish line ;) We've since done a few more races together, too.

He continued to train, and ran his first marathon in October. I was so excited to be able to support his running throughout training and during the race. Running is something I know--so I felt good at supporting him (before he started running, I wasn't sure what to talk to him about; I don't know anything about the Army or war, which had been a huge part of his life).

The change I've seen in Nathan since he started running a little over a year ago is very dramatic. He is healthier and happier than I've ever seen him! I asked him to share a little, in his words, about how running helped his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)...

"I decided to join the Army when the war in Iraq started. Joining the Army was something I always considered, but the war was the final push I needed. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared to go to war, but at the same time, I was excited to be a part of it.

There were a few times when I had second thoughts about joining the military, but I always tried to make the best out of each situation. There are times when you’re doing something that’s tougher than anything you’ve done in your life, but you get a great sense of accomplishment afterward. The worst part about being in Iraq was the 110+ degree temperatures—but of course, it was a “dry heat” ;) Over all, though, I actually really enjoyed being deployed. You get to see and do things that most people will never experience.

Nathan in Iraq

I was a little nervous to be discharged and come home, but I was more excited than anything. Life in the military is pretty simple and structured, and I didn’t know what to expect when I got home. The adjustment to being a civilian was somewhat challenging—the military, especially being deployed, will desensitize you to normal, everyday problems. I don’t know if it’s just part of being male, but I still find it tough to express my feelings. I tend to just keep things bottled up inside.

I had symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when I got home, and I don’t feel very comfortable sharing much about that, but once I got into running (seven years after discharge), I discovered that running alleviated most of the PTSD symptoms. I still have trouble with insomnia (it’s hard to shut my mind off and go to sleep), and I have trouble expressing my feelings, even with my girlfriend; but I find it easy to connect with other veterans. There is a sort of “brotherhood” between veterans that is difficult to find in civilian life.

Running, and training for races, is similar to experiences in the military. I enjoy continually challenging myself—whether it’s longer distance races or faster, short races. With each of those, you have to have a great deal of mental toughness. Even though it sucks at times (like sprinting that last hundred meters of a 5K!), you know that it will eventually end and you will get that feeling of accomplishment.

Nathan's first marathon

I'd started running when I saw how much it changed Katie’s life; and I quickly realized that there is a camaraderie among runners, which really drew me into the sport. It doesn’t matter how “fast” or “slow” you are; everyone seems to offer encouragement. When I started running, I figured that I should start eating better. And in turn, I realized that running and eating better made me feel better in general. Running also helped me reconnect with my family, particularly my brother and sisters, because they had all gotten into running; and now we share a common interest. 

My advice for veterans returning home would be to get involved in some sort of veterans group. It’s much easier to relate to other vets, and most have been through similar experiences. I would highly recommend Team RWB* (Red, White, & Blue)—I wish I would have known about them when I was discharged. 

I’ve been consistently running for about a year and a half now, and it really has changed my life in a positive way. It helped to alleviate symptoms of PTSD, brought me closer with my family and gives me a sense of purpose. I also enjoy the health benefits: my blood pressure is back to normal; I lost 50 pounds, bringing me back to a healthy weight; and I just feel more energized throughout the day!"

*Team RWB is a fantastic organization that helps veterans connect with their community by physical and social activity. As Nathan mentioned, he felt a "brotherhood" with other veterans; Team RWB's mission is to integrate veterans and civilians by doing physical and social activities together. You don't have to be a veteran to join--it's for anyone! I actually recently joined, myself :) 

Needless to say, I am so happy that Nathan found a healthy outlet in running. When he told me about a race coming up on Memorial Day, the Wins for Warriors 9K in Detroit, it completely clicked with me, and I knew I wanted to do it. The Wins for Warriors provides mental health support for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. These statistics are quite shocking:
  • According to a study by RAND, approximately one-third of those who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will experience Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury and/or Depression. This is attributed to more-frequent deployments, of greater lengths, with shorter rest periods in between. Their research shows that an individual with any of those conditions is more likely to have other psychiatric problems and to attempt suicide.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs released figures showing that every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That's a suicide every 65 minutes.
  • While it is important to understand what the numbers show, it is also necessary to focus on the strengths of all veterans. There has been a shift nationwide to focus away from negative messaging centered around wounds and scars, instead highlighting skills and resiliency.
  • Wins for Warriors partners with organizations to provide mental health support for veterans and their families, while also using its platform to be part of the national movement to change the conversation and shift focus to the fact that all veterans can be game changers!

I LOVE what this cause is doing, so Nathan and I signed up together to raise donations and run the race. We are required to raise $100, but I would love to raise so much more than that (I set a lofty personal goal of $2000)! This is the first race I've done with a fundraiser, and I really want to give it my all. I think it's so important for veterans and their families to have support after the vets get home from deployment.

I'm linking to our fundraising page, and I hope that if you can, you'll considering donating to this cause. It would mean so much to Nathan and me! Thank you so much in advance.

(Update: I've removed the links, now that the fundraiser is over. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who donated!)


  1. Thank you Nathan for sharing your story! It is so important for our veterans and their families to get the help and support that is needed. My Dad, we now realize, suffered from PTSD from child abuse as well as what he experienced during his 32 years in the US Army. Please keep doing what you are doing because you are inspirational!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story Nathan. What you say about the camaraderie is quite common. My dad is former army (Green Beret in Vietnam) and aside from when he was in training he won't talk to mom or I about his time in the service. But if he finds out you are a veteran (even if you weren't deployed) he will talk more readily. I am glad you found Team RWB.

  3. Thank you for your service Nathan! And thank you, Katie, for supporting your brother!

  4. Thanks to both of you for sharing this. My brother just joined the Marines (he's at basic training in San Diego till June) and so I spend a lot of time wondering what I can do to be supportive and how I can be there for him in the future. He and I once ran a Warrior Dash together...hopefully one day we can do another.

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  6. I loved reading this, thank you for sharing. :)

  7. So proud of you Nathan for facing PTSD head on! Running has helped me cope with a lot of my everyday stresses too, and even though I preach it every chance I get, I will never be able to say enough about how running and eating well have changed my world too. Job well done.

  8. This is wonderful! I will be sure to donate if our house is able. Thank you, Nathan, for your years of service. And thank you, Katie, for continuing to inspire all types of people! You are both doing a great job at that for sure!

  9. Thank you for sharing your story, Nathan and thank you for your dedicated service to our country! I made a donation because I support the cause and want to thank Katie for her blog. It has helped me tremendously in my own journey and this is a way I feel I can pay it back and forward since I will probably never meet you guys in person to thank you! Good luck at the race!

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this, Nathan and Katie! It is so exciting to see all of the amazing benefits of running. It helps me to keep going when it gets really tough.

    I love what Nathan said: "Even though it sucks at times (like sprinting that last hundred meters of a 5K!), you know that it will eventually end and you will get that feeling of accomplishment." So true!! Thank you both for being so inspiring!!

  11. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Nathan. I'm sure it wasn't easy to open up. My brother was in the Army and was diagnosed with PTSD. He still doesn't talk much about being in Army and like Katie, I try to find things that we have in common as he keeps so much bottled up too. I am definitely going to tell him about Team RWB.

    Again, thank you so much for sharing your story. I'm glad you are feeling better and like yourself again.

  12. Thank you for your service, Nathan. I grew up in a military family and was in the Army myself and I'm so grateful for people like you who fight for us. Thank you also for talking about PTSD. It affects so many and the more people that are willing to open up about it, the more others will hopefully see that it's okay to get help.

  13. I love how you guys were able to reconnect through running.

  14. Nathan, Thank you for your service and thank you for sharing.

  15. Thank you for sharing your story with everyone, Nathan, and even more than that, thank you for your service to our country! What an amazing sacrifice and love you showed by being in the armed forces! I am truly thankful for the sacrifice you and so many others give/gave for the United States!

  16. Wonderful post!!! Thank you so much for sharing!!

  17. Thank you Nathan for your service. I have been a longtime reader of this blog and enjoy it. If I may, can I suggest that Nathan look into the veteran's service organization that my brother started when he returned from his deployments - www.TeamRubiconUSA.org. They are doing lots of great things with and for veterans!

  18. Thank you for sharing your story, Nathan; and Katie, I love seeing how much you support and love your brother (and other siblings ;)). You guys are a great team!

  19. What an amazing story. My son went to Afganistan last year and my husband has been active duty for 20 years. I worry about these problems all the time. I am going to look into this race myself since we are in the Detroit area. These types of charities are near and dear to my heart. I also know an ex sergeant major who is a member and big advocate of team RWB, he is an amazing man and only recently discovered he has suffered for years from PTSD all the way from Veitnam. I met him as my personal trainer (absolutely with out a doubt, best trainer ever) and he even came to my wedding.

  20. Nathan, thank you for serving our country!

    Katie, I'm running that also, just signed up this mornin!. I'm hoping to be able to raise some money for this charity also.

  21. Thank you for your service Nathan. It's amazing to me all the benefits of exercise and specifically running.


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