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THOSE WHO SERVED: Local couple's military service was a game changer
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Sandra and Ron Elliott at their store in Richmond Hill. - photo by Photo by Mark Swendra

VIDEO: Ron and Sandra Elliott

Video by Mark Swendra

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This profile of an area veteran is part of a series of articles titled "Those Who Served," appearing monthly in the Courier.

For the past five years, the Richmond Hill community has recognized Sandra and Ron Elliott for their numerous charitable efforts and as leaders in promoting health and fitness through their Game Changers complex on Ford Avenue.

But for those who know their back story, today’s narrative is a continuation of community involvement and service that began in the Army, totaling a combined 61 years of uniformed and civilian duty.

Those at Fort Stewart/Hunter Army Airfield may remember Ron as director of public affairs from 2011 until his retirement in September. Sandra worked as a physical therapist at Winn Army Community Hospital.

The two, who met in 1988 on an Army base in Frankfurt, Germany, and married two years later, credits the military in many ways.

Sandra says she needed discipline in her life, and was “on a track going nowhere” before her enlistment in 1986.

Ron, who joined in 1979, said the military allowed him to “discover his own identity.”

It shaped who they are today.

“Serving and seeing the world changes and widens your perspective; and as a personnel officer, I’ve always been a server of some kind.” Sandra reflected. “I feel we taught our kids to do the same.”

Ron added, “It’s important for us to not just be in the community, but part of the community.”

But the military wasn’t initially part of their plans

Sandra, 56, grew up in Detroit, and although her father served in the Air Force until she was 5 -- later taking a job at General Motors -- she had no such desire. “In my mind, I never thought the military would be something I would want to do. I wanted to be a doctor,” she said.

She started on that path by studying pre-med, but while at the University of Texas, met someone who was in the ROTC.  During that time in her life, she said she sought discipline and joined both the Army ROTC and Texas National Guard.

She went to Italy for three weeks as a cadet in public affairs and was enamored with the travel. “I knew then I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”

Working in the National Guard during college helped Sandra understand how the military operated. “I enjoyed working with people in the Guard because they served their home state. I thought that was a very unique thing,” she said, describing the Texas National Guard as “citizen soldiers.”

After college, she applied and was accepted into the Army. “Not everyone who comes out of ROTC is allowed to go active duty, so I was very fortunate,” she said.

Ron, 61, grew up on a ranch in the Marysville/Yuba City area in Northern California, and was the son of a Pentecostal minister.

He had a scholarship to go to law school, but was discouraged by their pastor (not his father) to go that route. As a result, Ron gave up that scholarship.

At age 21 he joined the Army as a cook, thinking it “was my way of breaking out of that preacher’s kid bubble,” he said.

After six years, Ron left the Army and went to college, where he joined the ROTC. Upon graduation, active duty followed.

How their paths crossed

Sandra and Ron worked at a mail transfer facility in Frankfurt, where they met and fell in love.

“She was hot … Look at her!” Ron pointed and smiled, when asked to describe what attracted him most to Sandra.

For Sandra, it was Ron’s work ethic, she said, and his personality. “I’m very quiet. He’s the life of the party,” she added. “He’s kind of my opposite.”

The two married and embarked on a life that took them on assignments to both Europe and in the states.

“We were blessed,” Ron said. “We were never stationed in different locations. The Army is pretty good about that. They try to station you together.”

After a stop in Indianapolis where each graduated from a six-month advanced course in adjutant general training, their lives were enriched when they were sent to a base in San Antonio in 1992.

There, Sandra was able to return to her first love in the medical field, being accepted into a physical therapy program. She briefly got off active duty to go to school full time and was able to obtain her degree four years later. During this time, she volunteered in the physical therapy clinic.

A life-changing event

“While in that program in San Antonio, we had tried for six years to have children,” Sandra said. “I had two ectopic pregnancies … and I lost them. I lost one of my tubes in the process, so our chances of having any children (was slim).”

She said the hospital offered an in vitro fertilization program.

Born 10 weeks early, and spending 42 days in the hospital, “We were blessed with triplets,” she beamed.

Two girls and a boy were born on Dec. 12, 1996. Their names: Amanda, Alexandra and Joshua.

“Having triplets is life changing,” Sandra remarked. “It’s a game changer for sure,” Ron added.

After giving birth, Sandra remained active-duty, while Ron said he was “Major Dad” for the first three years, watching over the children while still active in the Reserves.

But when Ron was called to serve in Bosnia with the Texas National Guard, Sandra and the three toddlers moved to Michigan to be closer to her family.

The years that followed

After stints in Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Polk, LA, Ron got the opportunity to retire from active duty and accept a position as communications director for the George Marshall Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany.

“I couldn’t pass it up because it was a beautiful place,” Ron said. “It’s the vacation place for soldiers in Germany,” Sandra added.

After two years there, Ron spent time with the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisville, KY, and was activated to Iraq as a civilian, before settling in Georgia with the Fort Stewart/Hunter AAF position.

In all, Ron served 25 years uniformed military service, and 15 years of civil service. He retired with the rank of major.

Sandra served 21 years in the military, retiring in 2006 from the Army Reserves while in Germany. She too, retired as a major.

Although they say the military life strengthened their marriage, the two acknowledged how it could be difficult, especially for today’s couples, when spent apart.

“The military lifestyle is hard, especially in this day and age,” Ron said. “The kids nowadays have a different set of situations they have to deal with," referring to the number of repeated deployments.

“You’ll see divorces, spousal abuse and suicides,” Ron added. “I think what kept me from having any severe PTSD (when he came back from Iraq) was our age, our value system and our faith in God … because we had something to go get through that.”

Sandra explained, “It’s always about the community. They (the Army) would become your family, especially in an overseas environment. Our marriage was strengthened by the examples other families set for us. We interacted with a lot of different families from all religions and all walks of life, who helped me see how you do it successfully.”

Ron added, “I think the younger generation -- they’re still trying to figure out who they are. We put them in back to back deployments, which no one in their right mind should have to do, in a three or four-year time frame.”

A discovery that led to a new mission in life

Sandra had always been physically fit. Running and walking was a part of active life in the military, but she aggravated her back while starting up a lawn mower, resulting in back surgery in 2004.

“They told me I would never run again,” she said.

But while working as a physical therapist in Hoenfels, Germany, Sandra said she met a patient who had gone to Afghanistan and fractured his ankle and was rehabbing in the clinic.

“He was talking about the five-finger toe shoes,” Sandra said, referring to what Wikipedia calls “footwear meant to replicate being barefoot, with thin, flexible soles that are contoured to the shape of the human foot.”

“I happened to find a pair over there … put them on my feet and went out and ran two miles,” Sandra said. “I was so happy because it proved doctors wrong.”

When she got to Fort Stewart, she had difficulty finding stores that carried the shoe or had a good selection of running shoes in general. She thought, “Why don’t I open up a running store?”

But it wasn’t simply an idea to sell shoes. Sandra… and Ron as well, admit they aren’t salespeople and that making money selling shoes is not the reason they’re in business. Ron calls what they do a “holistic approach.”

“She (Sandra) had been teaching soldiers about running injuries and knew the importance of that,” Ron said.  It’s knowing you had to help people to make them better.”

In 2012, with Ron still at Fort Stewart, the couple opened a store called Georgia Game Changers Running Company in the Kroger shopping center on Ford Avenue in Richmond Hill. They said the store name was inspired from a Bible study.

“Through Savannah Christian (now Compassion Christian Church) we had a Bible study and that word combination came up just as I got a physical therapy magazine in the mail that said something about game changer,” Sandra explained. “I said this is the name we’re going to use.”

She added, “We do this in order to help people make a comeback. Georgia Game Changers --because we’re going to be changing the game basing our store on education and service.”

After seeing success with the running store, the Elliotts relocated three years later to a larger facility across the street and expanded on the concept.

Ron had the idea to build a one-stop health and fitness destination. The Game Changers complex opened in July 2015 on what was originally five acres of land and today is home to a number of stores, such as a bike shop and karate studio, that are tenants.

The running store alone is housed in a 6,000-square-foot space, Ron said, and there are plans to nearly triple the size of the complex. Sandra says she would love to see a health food restaurant on site.

Richmond Hill is not the only location being served. The couple opened a store in downtown Savannah a year ago this month, calling it Game Changers Running Company Savannah.  Ron said he is “toying with the idea” of opening a third store.

Sandra, who maintains her physical therapist license, says the stores allow her to remain engaged in the health of others.

 “The reason we opened these doors was to help people. We have such a large military community and I end up helping people as a physical therapist in my store, every day. My whole mindset is based on my physical therapist experience, and everyone who works for us is trained with that mindset.”

In addition to operating the store, the Elliotts and their staff volunteer their time by hosting at least three running events each year.

The Resolution Run, a race to benefit the JTROC battalion, one of the largest student organizations, will be back on Jan. 20 at J.F. Gregory Park.

In late July of each year, the Red Hot Chili Pepper Run, which commemorates the anniversary date of their inaugural store, is held and benefited Family Promise last year.

The Tour de Ford is a race at Ford Plantation, which, the Elliotts say, raised $8,500 for the Richmond Hill High School Band last year. It is scheduled for Sept. 22.

If you think the couple has given back enough to the community, Sandra manages to find time to serve as a member of the Bryan County Library Board of Trustees. Ron is on the Richmond Hill Planning Commission and on the board of their homeowner association.

“City Council is probably the next move for me,” Ron announced. “I will run the next go-around.”

In addition, military life seems to have rubbed off on their children, as well. Their two girls are both headed in that direction.

Amanda is currently at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and is scheduled to graduate this year.

Alexandra is at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and is scheduled to graduate in 2019.

“Both of the girls love the military life, the people we have met, and the opportunity to see the world and connect with people around the world,” Sandra said.

Their son, Joshua, works at their store, and although he took a different career path, the Elliotts say he “leads the way in customer service.”

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