In honor of Alexandria’s Year of the Veteran, our newest partner program, the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC), has been conducting a “Veteran of the Month” interview series. We sat down with Brendan O’Toole, the 25-year-old Alexandria native and Marine veteran who ran across the country from 2012 to 2013 and raised over $500K for veteran service nonprofits. Brendan recently met with us to share some of his stories and plans and to reflect on his experiences with The Run for Veterans and as a veteran in Alexandria.
- Name: Brendan O’Toole
- Nonprofit: The Run for Veterans
- Year Started: 2012
- Donations Raised: $ 550,000
- Website: www.runforveterans.org
- Military Service: Marine Corps
- Branch / Specialty: Radio Operator, Communications
- Years in Alexandria: 25 (born and raised)
- Role Model: Jack Taylor, Reynolds Young, local veteran-owned business owners
- Favorite Alexandria Restaurant: RT’s Restaurant (3804 Mt. Vernon Ave)
- Favorite Alexandria Event/Activity: T.C. Williams Titan Expo
- Favorite ___ in Alexandria: My favorite place to buy cars is Jack Taylor Toyota!
First, let’s take a look back. Why did you decide to join the military?
I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I guess that’s one of the things about being in the DC area; that really hit home. I remember being in seventh grade, and the teacher coming in and flipping on the television because they were in such shock. The second plane had just hit. I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in life, but I’m definitely going to get involved in this and help where I can.” That’s what has led me to where I am today. I want to do my part.
Describe your proudest moment during your time in the military.
Having the opportunity to guide and mentor junior Marines was my probably proudest moment. I had guys who didn’t know how to balance a bank account and didn’t even know how to drive a car. These things seem probably ordinary to most of us. It was nice to just help people and help put them on the right path.
What has been most challenging about transitioning from military service?
When you come back from being deployed, it just takes time for a lot of things to heal and that reflection process. I think today, we are so just so caught up in technology and how quickly the world is moving that sometimes when we get back, and even after just 6 months, we are thinking to ourselves: “Why am I feeling crappy now? Why am I going downhill? I should be on-track by now.” We forget to tell people that it just takes a little time. Personally, I think I just gained that pride back in the last few months, and that’s after a whole two-and-half years out of the military. In the media today, everyone wants to know how to help PTSD and suicide prevention. No one just says, “Give the guy some time, build a support system around him; give him the opportunity to reach out or to brainstorm or to create or whatever it might be.” That’s probably all he needs to be successful.
Who has influenced you the most in your career?
I don’t think there’s one individual. I think it’s the people that said, “you couldn’t do it.” They are the driving forces that push me to not only prove them wrong but to go to the next level and prove to myself that I can do it. The principal at T.C. Williams, who was only around for two years when I was there, was very influential in my life. I remember, we sat in a board room, and he told me that I’d never amount to anything! I think I’ve proven that one wrong, hopefully. I like to turn it into a positive. When times get tough, you get burnt out, and the road gets dark, you can’t let people like that define you.
Tell us what brought you to Alexandria and why you started your nonprofit here?
Looking back on it, I didn’t have any money, so I had to sleep in my parents’ basement. I had to start somewhere. But all great ideas start in a garage or a basement these days, right? More importantly, while I didn’t have an answer to a lot the things I was looking for, I did know that I have great friends and great family, and that Alexandria is a great city. There are a lot of life lessons to be learned just dealing with people on a day-to-day basis in this city. The city has been good to me through T.C. Williams, and it had been good through the mentors I have had in Alexandria, and it just seemed right to come back. What’s great now is that we are actually sharing that message about Alexandria and the support system here and promoting it to others.
What was your vision when you founded your nonprofit?
I don’t think that there’s a single veteran who comes out of the military and has an “easy” transition. My vision for The Run for Veterans was to create an opportunity to inspire individuals, while also having hope and faith, and somehow transfer that to the greater community. At the same time, it was a way for me to keep working toward something that was bigger than me. It was something I needed at that point in my life. I was in a bad transition state, and I realized that I needed to get back on track, especially considering all of the discipline that the military had instilled in me. Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, it was meant to be something that allowed anyone and everyone to get involved, and it grew from there.
Can you tell us a bit more about The Run for Veterans?
While we were out there, we were raising money and awareness for available mental, physical, and social services for veterans. Essentially, we were just a marketing tool; a marketing tool on wheels! I think it’s awesome that we provided no actual services, but our spirit, our success, and our story were more beneficial to people than providing a direct service. Promoting our message and then having the actual professionals like Team Red White and Blue, Give An Hour, and the USO provide the services is what made it a successful organization.
One thing I’d like to mention is that no one really knew at the time how bad the state of the VA was. Not to speak poorly of them, but we realized that while the VA was struggling, there was a real opportunity to support these other nonprofits, and help connect the dots.
What would you say makes your organization unique?
We were able to capitalize on getting youth involved. Our largest demographic of Facebook followers were ages 18 to 32, and I think that’s huge. Although a lot of nonprofits across the country do great work, they are usually built by older professionals who have more experience and are often more organized. That was our big thing: “Why can’t young people make a change and get involved in something they don’t agree with?” At the time, we were upset with the VA for not providing enough help and funds to veterans. So, making our cause a “cool” thing for young people to get involved in, and then keeping the momentum going, was something really special.
How was the run?
The run itself was supposed to be completed in eight months. It was done in exactly one year. I ran for eight months of that year, and I was injured for the other four. And that’s a whole different great story right there. We talk about setting a game plan when you get out of the military – “In a year I want to be doing this or that.” Well, sometimes that doesn’t exactly work out on your time, and you have to adapt or overcome and readjust. So, it took from Veterans Day of 2012 to 2013. We left California and then 3,600 miles later, we were in Portland, Maine.
Have you always been a runner?
No, I actually hate running (laughing)! I was always an avid athlete, and we always ran in the military. But I did work with a couple running specialists, and I got the techniques and did preventative maintenance prior to taking off. You kind of train as you go. So, I got stronger the farther I went.
Can you tell us what kind of injuries you sustained?
I actually had an injury right off the bat! I had a sprained ankle because I fell down the stairs of the RV our first weekend there. Then, I had a hairline fracture in my right ankle in Texas. I was bit by a Rottweiler in East Texas. We endured a car accident in Columbia, SC, and then I got punched in the face in Wilmington, DE. I think that’s pretty much it!
Honestly, being injured was one of the highlights of the trip, because that allowed the opportunity for our team to get out in the towns and meet people. We slept at peoples’ houses and got to hear their stories. One of our biggest assets along the trip was just listening to other’s stories and then sharing those stories as we continued to go on. If you can listen, you can learn, and I believe that you can teach after that.
How did you take care of the administrative aspects of your nonprofit during that year? Did you do that by yourself or did you have assistance?
Well, I didn’t get a lot of sleep sometimes! Actually, two weeks before leaving, we had $500 in our bank account. The guys and I that started this literally sold everything we had (cars, clothes, guns)—we threw all of our money into it. We had enough money to build a website, get a couple flyers together, file the proper paperwork, and after that, we had $500 left. I was actually able file the paperwork by myself. I did some research online, and I realized that if you actually just read the paperwork, it’s not that crazy! I went to the book store and got a book on nonprofits.
At the time, everyone was shaking their head. My dad is a banker. He looked at our numbers and made sure that everything was set from a legal standpoint, and he was shaking his head saying, “You’re a fool! There’s no way you’re going to financially be able to make this project happen.” We had a fundraiser two weeks prior to leaving, and we raised $25K. That initial money was only going to be used for funding the project (gas, insurance, etc.), so everyone knew that first $25K wasn’t going to actual veterans. That was enough money to actually get us from California to Texas. It wasn’t until we got to Texas that people around the country started learning about what we were doing, and things just went up from there.
Did you ever have a moment where you thought: This might not work?
I’ve never told anybody this, but I had a panic attack about a week before. We went up to West Point to meet the founders of Team RWB, and I think it all just dawned upon me that. I was thinking, this is a pretty big project. I thought I was having a heart attack! I just remember telling myself, “Look, just one step at a time. . .” It just took off from there. As far as the running, when I actually got out there, I got to mile 13, and I thought to myself, “Well this is ridiculous, here you are actually in California running, and you’ve got a lot of miles to do!” But, you just take it one day at a time. That’s my advice – take it one day at a time.
So now that you are pursuing new endeavors, what are you goals for 5-10 years from now?
I want to come back to Alexandria eventually. I’m a big believer that a lot of personal growth comes from travel and new experiences, and you have to capitalize on those while you have the opportunity. I think the more well-rounded you can be, the better you can give back to others. I have some great ideas of that sort; I’d really like to study the world through school now. I’m sure I’ll be a business owner one day here in Alexandria, and I look forward to that. And I say that because I feel like what AVBEC’s doing is really great. We’re talking now about this model, this blueprint, all of this work… and then later to actually be able to live that and say, “ I remember before AVBEC was here. We didn’t know there were 250 veteran business owners, we weren’t sharing ideas!’ It would be cool to come back here as a business-owner and really live that.
In your experience, what makes Alexandria a great community for veterans?
First of all, we have all the history here in Alexandria. But I don’t think I’d be able to answer this question if I hadn’t gotten involved with AVBEC. I’ve received so much from Alexandria with veteran groups like Team RWB, the VFW, the American Legion, and local business owners that are veterans. What I think is great about Alexandria now is that we are showing that there is a huge support for veterans here, especially from our businesses. We all have to make money and we have to be able to live. Why not connect the dots and our strengths? That’s what makes me excited about Alexandria right now. I think honestly it’s a blueprint that can be copied and shared across the country.
The one thing that I would change in Alexandria, from my experience, is having a more central, designated veteran memorial where you can go and reflect right in the center of the city. Every small town and city I ran through have these in their town squares. There’s usually a veteran memorial with all the military flags, the American flag, etc. that honors a generation of veterans; whether it’s WWII or Vietnam. I would love to see a veteran park one day on the waterfront. It would list all the men and women that were born in Alexandria that served, and those that were killed in action, and also highlight firefighters and community service members. I think that’s important because that’s what the country is built on – individuals that were doing something that was essentially bigger and better than themselves, for their country.