Soldier, Fighter, Sufferer, Advocate

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As a college sophomore, Vincent Petrucci faced a difficult choice. His father had died, leaving him incapable of continuing to attend the University of Miami and dealing with emotional wounds. He needed to go into the work force or find a more affordable college. Instead, the young Petrucci enlisted in the US Army.

After finishing basic training in 2000, Petrucci was stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. He earned a Green-to-Gold scholarship for Rutgers University and met his wife, a fellow soldier. The couple married in 2001 and spent their first two years of marriage a country away from each other.

After completing his degree, Petrucci finished Officer’s Basic Training in Missouri, spending another three months stationed away from his wife and newborn son in Washington. The family finally came together again in Killeen after his leadership training was complete. Fort Hood, a familiar environment for the Petruccis, became home base for the military family. When Petrucci was deployed to Baghdad as a military police officer in 2005, these familiar surroundings were important for the people he left behind.


Petrucci’s company’s job was clearly stated: recruit, train, equip, and employ the newly formed Iraqi police force. The men spent most of their days “outside of the wire,” placing the building blocks of governmental control in dangerous and hostile neighborhoods. In the middle of this work, Petrucci met Aaron Hudson. “He was a phenomenal person: talented, kind, intelligent, everything you could ask for in a person or soldier,” Petrucci reminisced. Months later, in April of 2005, the company lost Hudson to a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED). The tragedy, an event expounded by his next tour of duty, began a cycle of fear and uncertainty in Petrucci’s ability as a leader—a cycle that would eventually lead to the beginnings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Later, Petrucci found himself alone on an empty street, avoiding the bullet fire of unseen machine guns from distant windows. Over time, he had lost one of his men to a blast from an IED, and he had spent months in Baghdad, his days sometimes filled with finding bodies riddled with bullet blasts as a result of extrajudicial killings. His wife and children were far away, missing from his life for 18 months at a time. As he dodged the barrage of shells, he was fighting to save himself—an extremely resilient yet fragile being. When Petrucci returned home, he knew the struggles of war had changed him forever.


For years after his service, Petrucci fought the symptoms of the tragedies alone. “Being a soldier (and especially an officer), unfortunately, you are looked down on if you admit you need help and actually reach out for that help,” Petrucci explained. “So I did what every good soldier does; I held it all in.” An emotionally numb, cut off, and distant man wandered through various service jobs until he took a post as Company Command at Fort Drum in New York. His flashbacks to Hudson’s death caused him to be a harsh, unforgiving, and unsympathetic example to the men he was supposed to train. “I was very angry; I was defiant; I was unapproachable, and I was not willing to allow for any mistakes from my soldiers,” Petrucci explained. “We were scheduled to deploy again in a few months and I took our training extremely seriously. There was no way I was going to lose another soldier. Most of my soldiers—and even the leaders—had never deployed and I was intent on training them to the best ability I had. It was during this training that the effects of my PTSD became uncontrollable. I finally reached out for help when I couldn’t take it anymore and was immediately stigmatized as a ‘troublemaker’ and ‘weak’.”

Chris Manganaro and Petrucci finishing their first marathon
It was in the midst of this turmoil that Petrucci met Chris Manganaro. A former brother in arms of Major Mike Erwin, the founder of Team Red, White & Blue, Manganaro was also a marathon runner and he invited Petrucci to train with him. The friendship allowed Petrucci to finally face the realities of his disorder. “I hadn’t slept more than four hours a night (and never consecutively) since I first returned in 2006,” Petrucci remembered. “I told him how I had lost the ability to feel emotions or empathy for others. Through it all, Chris just ran and listened.” The running and friendship provided a turning point for an officer who had fought alone for too long. Petrucci ran the marathon and decided to seek professional help, going on to complete some eight marathons, and dealing with his demons until physical issues brought his long distance running days to a halt.

While that physical activity proved to be therapeutic and the conversation cathartic, the solider explained that the true turning point in his fight against PTSD came when he moved back to Fort Hood and officially joined Team Red, White & Blue: “Team RWB has helped me to regain that passion for fitness and especially running. Due to my physical limitations (degenerative disc disease and arthritis in my back as well as my foot), I have had to drastically change the way I exercise. Team RWB has helped me rediscover the positive effects of fitness and taught me that it is not about how fast you finish, it is that you finish. It is about the journey along the way that matters and provides the body and mind with a positive mentality that leads to recovery.”

Petrucci and his service dog Kevin
For a soldier who has suffered from the negative stigmas associated with PTSD, Petrucci has made his time with Team RWB about helping soldiers feel strong even in the middle of dealing with the weighty effects of being brave for their country. “I want to be the example of someone who suffers from PTSD but still can be a productive member of the Army and of the community,” explained Petrucci. “Just because I have these struggles doesn’t mean I am less of a soldier or person.” He went on to state that the time Team RWB members spend exercising with one another is a time of reflection where they can work through the problems associated with post combat adjustment.

Vincent Petrucci has not reached the finish line of his post-combat struggles. The soon to be retired Army captain still feels trapped on base, afraid to take his car off post alone for fear of hurting someone should a flashback come. There are nights when he doesn’t sleep and mood swings that leave him an emotionally empty shell. As his feet hit the pavement for those first days of marathon training, he took his first steps in dealing with emotional baggage that had been suppressed for too long. With Team RWB, Petrucci is dealing with his physical and emotional injuries but the chaos of recovery has given him something more valuable than any of his marathon completions. “Team RWB has helped me focus on my post-Army plan, which is becoming a lawyer and continuing to serve our returning veterans to the best of my ability with their legal matters,” stated the soldier. “They helped me to discover my passion and what I believe is my purpose here, to help others.”

What is Team Red, White & Blue?

To read more about Team RWB in Texas, go to austinfitmagazine.com for the article, “Readjusting after Combat: Team Red, White & Blue helps veterans find a new identity”
 

A quick look online reveals the core values of Team RWB

1. Reintegration through physical fitness
+ Physical: rebuild the body, give structure to life, and bolster self-esteem

+ Psychological: help to process experiences from Iraq/Afghanistan

+ Social: connect with people to run, bike, work out, and be active

2. Personal connectivity between veterans and citizens in the community in which they live
+ Community-building events that bring veterans together with citizens
+ Formation of friendships and natural individual relationships

3. Galvanization of esprit de corps and team membership
+ Bringing back the feeling from the military of pride and being part of a unit

“By creating authentic relationships, developing physical, psychological, and social health, and bringing back the military sense of pride and being part of a team, Team RWB enriches the lives of our veterans.”
 

How Can You Help Team Red, White & Blue?

+ Participate in a Team RWB event
(for a complete listing, visit www.teamrwb.org)
+ Join the Team: the Austin Community Team has a page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/TeamRWBTexas
+ Wear the Eagle by purchasing Team RWB gear and clothing
+ Join the Online Community to connect with veterans and community members
+ Sign up to become a Fundraiser

For more information, visit Team RWB at www.teamrwb.org

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