New Program Helps Veterans Stay In Shape Mentally and Physically

When a service member arrives home from a war, chances are the last thing on his or her mind is keeping healthy. Most likely, veterans are focusing more on finding a job, supporting a family, and dealing with the many psychological pressures that can often accompany recently returned combat veterans.

But Home Base’s Warrior Health and Fitness Program, which operates in Boston and Southwest Florida, aims to make sure that health doesn’t take a backseat. The organization leads up to 60 servicemembers and veterans to take care of their mental and physical well-being through free six-month sessions. It started as a pilot program at Florida Gulf Coast University spearheaded by General Fred Franks.

The stakes are high. According to the website, one in three veterans will experience an Invisible Wound of War such as post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. Suicide rates among Army and Marine Corps personnel are twice as high as the national average. What’s more, veterans can suffer from sleep disturbances, uncontrollable anger, hyper vigilance, and other chronic physical and mental health disorders.

Staying healthy and physically fit is a key element to combat these issues. Statistics show that veterans often do not seek the right amount of care to support both their physical and mental health needs.

The military looks after the health of active service members, ensuring they eat right and exercise. At home, there’s no one to do that.

Andrew McCarty, Director of Military and Veteran Services, says “In the military, we have to be ready for whatever the enemy throws at us. You get out, and the enemy is everyday life—stressors of your job or of higher ed or family life. If you’re not maintaining that level of physical fitness that you had before, you’re affected more by those stressors.”

Veteran Zack Omwega agreed.

“In the military you get your broccoli, but at home if it’s pizza night, it’s pizza night,” he explained.

However at the Warrior Health and Fitness program, veterans get supervised physical training, including strength training and aerobics, and they’ll learn about how to maintain a healthy diet, good sleep patterns, and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. They also learn techniques to manage stress and anxiety.

Ryan Vander Weit is a Home Base Warrior Health and Fitness Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and a post-9/11 veteran. “So far everyone is kind of one the same page,” he said. “They don’t know what to do, where to go. They let themselves go. They want to get back in shape, they want to feel better. That’s why they’re here. This is a great place to do that because while we are centered on fitness, behind the scenes we’re trying to create that sense of community and camaraderie that we once had.”

Participants say one of the most important qualities of the program is the friendships formed. That fellowship is so elemental to the military lifestyle but is much harder to find amid the pressures of the “real world.”

According to the website, the program enables “participants to form a new band of ‘brothers and sisters’ through healthy and positive competition. They get the guidance of military trainers who know where they’ve been and what they’re dealing with.”

As Omwega put it, “Hanging out with Ryan and people that know what you’re all about, they can kind of relate so there’s no judgment. There’s a mutual respect.”

The program is open to all able-bodied men and women, including amputees, from all branches of the military, the National Guard and the Reserves.

The Warrior Health & Fitness Program is a collaborative effort between the Boston Red Sox, Massachusetts General Hospital Sports Medicine Department, Home Base, and collegiate exercise science programs at Northeastern University and Florida Gulf Coast University.

And lest you think this is basic training 2.0, with officers screaming at recruits, think again. Here, it’s all about building each other up.

“We’re not here to beat you into the ground; you’ve already been through that. You only need to go through that once; there’s no reason to do it twice. They already paid their dues,” said Vander Weit.