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An Army-Navy party for wounded vets

It makes sense that a marathon tailgate party at the Army-Navy game was organized by a bunch of long-distance runners.

Sam Linn and Mike Erwin (right) at the tailgate fund-raiser at the Army-Navy game. They aim to assist veterans reentering society.
Sam Linn and Mike Erwin (right) at the tailgate fund-raiser at the Army-Navy game. They aim to assist veterans reentering society.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

It makes sense that a marathon tailgate party at the Army-Navy game was organized by a bunch of long-distance runners.

And so it was 5:30 a.m. when Mike Erwin steered a rented truck into the M parking lot at Lincoln Financial Field - more than nine hours before the coin toss for the 111th gridiron showdown between the archrivals.

Temperatures were still in the 20s on the dark and quiet Saturday morning, a time when dedicated marathoners are usually out training. But for this special event, Erwin and his friends set up for what would be a long run of partying - through the afternoon kickoff and wrapping up with what these former West Pointers hoped would be victory drinks in the evening.

In addition to being one of the longest pregame parties at the storied football game - a Philadelphia tradition that takes occasional detours to Baltimore, New York, and Washington - it may have been the biggest, with 400 people, 300 pounds of hot dogs and hamburgers, and three pigs. But it was all for a good cause.

They call themselves Team Red, White & Blue, and they do more than run - or party. Their goal is to transform the way wounded veterans are reintegrated into society when they leave the service. The organization was founded in May by Erwin, a 30-year-old Army captain who is studying for a doctorate in psychology at the University of Michigan and happens to be an ultramarathoner.

The tailgate party raised money for the group, which is based in Washington and Ann Arbor, Mich. Erwin sees parallels in his two passions, running and helping people.

"If you have that drive to go out and train two, three hours at a time, you have the drive to reach out and change people's lives," he said between master-of-ceremony duties at the party.

As the war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year - the longest conflict in U.S. history - 4,400 groups around the country are helping thousands of soldiers who have been physically and mentally wounded in battle. Every year, busloads of injured veterans go to the game from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., a trip organized and sponsored by the Army War College Foundation. This year's caravan was expected to arrive about an hour before the 2:40 p.m. start to the game, which Navy would win, 31-17, for a 55-49-7 series lead.

But Erwin believes he is on to something different, pairing those with post-traumatic stress and brain injuries with advocates who will simply be their friends. He compares it to Big Brothers Big Sisters.

"Our belief is that spending time together every day is much more valuable than even counseling," said Erwin, who will teach behavioral psychology and leadership at West Point next fall.

Too often wounded veterans don't feel comfortable meeting new people or looking for job, he said.

"They stay in their homes," Erwin said, and computers make it too easy to take care of most tasks, even socializing, without leaving. "They disappear into the twilight."

So far, the organization has raised $110,000 from seven events, including the Dallas marathon last Sunday. Erwin alone has run 550 miles since Sept. 1. The money pays for activities to support the newly formed friendships, such as ball games, dinners at restaurants, and birthday gifts for the veterans. Forty people in Washington, D.C., and 20 in Michigan have signed up as advocates.

The Army-Navy game is just the type of carefree outing that Erwin hoped the new buddies could enjoy together, though none were able to attend this year since the program is just getting off the ground.

"There are very few problems that can be solved by money. The solution resides in other people," Erwin said. "We need other people to be involved in the cause. We want to inspire people to get involved."

Sam Linn, a former classmate of Erwin's at West Point, said he would love to be an advocate. After five deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, the artillery officer from Cheltenham has seen every type of war injury, including those that end with a soldier's mother receiving a flag and her nation's thanks.

The worst is the kind that "doesn't look as much like a wound of battle but a defect in personality," said Linn, 30, who was recently promoted to major and organized the tailgate party.

Linn returned home in July and is studying for a master of business administration at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where he heads the Wharton Veterans Club. He is also an endurance athlete.

Any type of war injury is a "sign of sacrifice of what these young men have given," Linn said.

But when a soldier suffers mentally, "he doesn't get the same credit as a guy with a prosthetic limb does."

Some of his friends have had difficult adjustments after serving in battle, Linn said. Those with the most support recover the quickest.

"We're all there for them," he said, "as long as they need us."

But as the war drags on, some soldiers may have no one to turn to.

"As a nation," Linn said, "it's hard to get people to pay attention to something that painful for that long."