Marching Ahead

The Connection Between Recreation & Quality of Life

By Rick Dandes

Military recreation programs have become a key component of physical and emotional therapy for soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of that, these programs must evolve to keep up with the latest trends and to meet the needs of our marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen.

In the armed services, recreation is highly valued. It's readily understood how important downtime and relaxation are to both military members and their families.

That's why there's a wealth of recreation opportunities available just about everywhere on a military post. Most installations have a variety of activities for soldiers and their families, including everything from sporting activities to outdoor recreation. And, depending on the size of the post, most provide athletic and training facilities that include exercise and weight rooms, saunas and various sports-related courts. Family members may use the centers, with some age restrictions for things such as the use of weight-training machines.

Besides having parks, playgrounds and recreation areas, some larger installations also operate travel camps, hunting areas, shooting ranges, and riding stables and trails. Others have facilities that include ice-skating rinks, hiking trails, go-cart tracks, rappelling, marinas, fishing lakes and adventure activities.

Since 2001, however, multiple deployments have presented military recreation specialists with a new set of challenges.

"During deployments," said Laura L. Koene, deputy director, Semper Fit Division, Marine Corps Community Services, in Camp Lejeune, N.C., "military members get accustomed to being in a state of alert, which provides something like a constant adrenaline rush. They often have a difficult time adjusting to more mundane living conditions when they return home. Our recreation programmers offer more high-adventure activities to provide the rush the military member feels he or she is missing."

At Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps has developed a Life Enhancing Activity Program (LEAP) and Back on Track program, which help military members who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI). These programs are run through the Naval Hospital and include sessions in yoga and iRest along with recreational opportunities such as swimming, kayaking and rock climbing.

The Army also has developed a relatively new, 2-year old recreation program called Warrior Adventure Quest, which deals with the same coming-home issues faced by marines, and is producing amazing results, officers say.

"Warrior Adventure Quest is a huge program for us, and we're really excited about it," said William Bradner, a deputy public affairs officer with the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command.

Bradner agreed with Koene that after being deployed in a high-adrenaline environment for a year or more, soldiers are coming back home all hyped up and needing that adrenaline fix, and this can sometimes lead to disastrous results.

"Younger soldiers are buying the sports motorcycles or ATVs and are running them into trees at 120 miles per hour," Bradner said. "There is this destructive behavior generated because they are looking for that same adrenaline that they lived under for a year or more. So Warrior Adventure Quest combines high-adrenaline sports like sky diving, bungee jumping, water rafting in a group environment with after-action briefings that provide soldiers with a safe outlet for getting that fix, and encourages them to continue with that kind of active life style in a safe environment."

The after-action briefing is done at the platoon level as a group, teaches them to continue to watch each other's backs, as well.

The program results are extraordinarily positive, Bradner reported. "The last survey that we did, with over 10,000 soldiers that participated in this program, showed soldiers had 50.4 percent fewer accidents resulting in fatality injuries, compared to a similar sized group of soldiers who had not participated in Warrior Adventure Quest. Those are incredible results with soldiers coming back from war."

Unit commanders love it too, he said, because it helps redirect those high-adrenaline energies into a safe outlet.

Wounded Warriors

Injured military personnel returning from Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 now number more than 65,000, according to statistics provided by the Wounded Warriors Project, a nonprofit organization based in Jacksonville, Fla. During previous wars, these men and women might have been discharged or retired. Current military policies, however, permit wounded warriors to remain on active duty.

So, are recreation programs being adapted to account for this large number of wounded warriors as they return home?

"Absolutely," insisted Tammy Smith, coordinator of Outreach/ Project Director for Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warrior training, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management, Penn State University, in State College, Pa.

But, there is a long way to go, she added.

Many military installation buildings were constructed in the early 1940s, well before legislation like the Rehab Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"In previous conflicts," Smith explained, "our wounded service members returned home and were supported by the Veterans Administration after discharge from service."

Today, approximately 65 percent of ill and injured are returning to active-duty status due to advances in "on the field" medical treatment, and medical technology and procedures, she noted. "As a result, military installations have been faced with the unprecedented need to provide wounded warriors programmatic access to their Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) and Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS)—the Marine Corps' recreation program.

"Unfortunately," Smith said, "most MWR/MCCS service providers have not had formal training in provision of recreation service to wounded warriors and how to integrate those personnel into their existing programs and services."

Many installations have Wounded Warrior Battalions (WWBs) and Wounded Transition Units (WTUs) that are geared specifically toward evaluating, rehabilitating and preparing wounded warriors for returning to active duty.

"There are also external recreation service providers that specialize in programs for individuals with disabilities," Smith said, noting Disabled Sports USA, which offer services to the wounded veterans.

"What we hope to do with our training efforts at Penn State is to train MWR/MCCS personnel on how to integrate and actively involve active-duty wounded warriors into existing recreation programs and services."

Separate, yet equal, programming in WWBs and WTUs has its place, she said, but does not necessarily provide service members with the breadth of recreation services and opportunities available.

"In my opinion," Smith said, "there should be more communication between MWR and the WWBs and WTUs to help wounded military personnel transition into base or post community life."

In response to this challenge, Penn State University in 2007 began offering a Wounded Warriors outreach program at its State College campus.

"Since 2007," Smith added, "We have held numerous trainings and many participants have reported back programmatic and service changes. Examples include more ramps, roll-up mats enabling beach access, more signage, marketing media and materials that offer information on seeking accommodations, a more concerted effort to make some on-installation lodging and vacation rentals more physically accessible, more staff trained on various war-related injuries, such as PTSD, TBI and amputations. And Army staff have been taught ways to modify or adapt their programs to accommodate injured military personnel."

Bradner, of the U.S. Army, noted that his service is sending more and more recreation coordinators to the Penn State program, the latest of which ended this past March.

"The program has proved highly effective," he agreed. "We are sending our recreation managers to classes at PSU to attend these four-day courses designed to train staff to successfully integrate active-duty wounded warriors into their existing recreational programs. The courses teach Army staff adaptive ways to use machinery, ways to adapt sports programs, ways to adapt recreation programs to handicapped soldiers, ways to incorporate sitting volleyball, wheelchair tennis, adaptive golf and those types of things into their exercise routines to help wounded warriors remain active after they've returned from service, after they've returned from the war front."

Bradner explained that there are also Wounded Warrior golf programs where the Army has partnered with the National Amputee Golf Association and the Professional Golfers Association to help give clinics, teaching soldiers how to adapt their swing to whatever disability they may have come back with.

One of Wounded Warriors most popular programs is called the Soldiers Ride—a rehabilitative cycling experience that honors our military men and women as they courageously battle the physical and psychological damages of war, said Becky Melvin, public relations manager for the Wounded Warriors Project.

Melvin said there are 13 Soldier Rides scheduled this year. (For a complete list of sites, go online to the Soldier Rides homepage:

The Soldiers Ride accommodates amputees as well. "Warriors of all ability levels cycle in Soldiers Ride," Melvin said. "There are state-of-the-art adaptive hand cycles, trikes and bicycles to accommodate warriors with various injuries and disabilities, as well as unmodified road bikes for riders not requiring adaptive equipment. Wounded Warrior Project provides equipment and support at no cost to warriors."

Wounded Warriors offers other recreational-rehabilitative programs, such as a partnership with Disabled Sports USA, which provides year-round sports programs to help injured service members gain confidence and independence, while adapting to life after injury.

"With adaptive equipment and trained instructors," Melvin said, "warriors can participate in almost any sport, moving them beyond rehabilitation and toward a full and productive life. Through our partnership with the Vail Veterans Program, for example, we provide winter and summer outdoor recreation activities such as snowboarding, skiing, fly-fishing, rafting, and camping to wounded warriors, their immediate families and primary caregivers."

Family Values

"I commend the military for their initiatives that support children, partners and spouses during deployment," Smith, of Penn State University, said.

"The entire slew of Army family covenant programs are designed to help make life easier, because we've been at war for 10 years, and we know it has put a tremendous stress on families," Bradner, of MWR Command, added.

Operation Military Kids (OMK) is just one fast-growing initiative that began just for this purpose.

OMK is the U.S. Army's collaborative effort with America's communities to support children and youth affected by deployment. Whether or not families are experiencing deployment for the first time, the second time or another in a series of multiple deployments, the program's goal is to connect military children and youth with local resources in order to achieve a sense of community support and enhance their well-being.

In 2009, more than 150,000 youths participated in experiences conducted by OMK teams in 49 states and the District of Columbia; 945 community members representing over 43 national, state and local organizations worked together utilizing core OMK program elements to help school-age children and youths through the deployment of a loved one.

Through OMK, military youth, for example, meet other kids who are also experiencing deployment and participate in a range of recreational, social and educational programs. They also can attend single day, weekend or even longer residential camps

There are many other teen programs that the Army has expanded to provide supervised, safe, fun activities for teens in response to the fact that there are so many suddenly single mothers or single dads because one or the other parent is deployed, said Bradner. "All of those programs incorporate physical activities and recreational activities in order to promote a healthier lifestyle.

"Our family support," he noted, "goes so much beyond recreation, to daycare for spouses of deployed soldiers, so they can drop the kids off and have some time for them. In many cases that time is used for recreational purposes."

Most of these programs are available for National Guard and reservists as well, Bradner said. "The scary thing is, when a National Guardsman or reservist solider comes back from a deployment they have about a two-week debrief on a military installation and then they are sent back to their home. In those places where we don't have a large or strong enough reserve population, we are partnering with local gyms, local golf courses, recreation centers and asking them to provide those kinds of supports to our soldiers."

Other things the Army is doing include creating child care centers or child care rooms within gymnasiums and exercise and fitness centers, so that while one spouse is deployed, the remaining spouse can still take part in recreational activities and physical activities and have some place nearby where their children can be supervised while they do so.

"At an Army garrison near Vicenza, Italy," Bradner said, "they created a program called Stroller Fitness, which actually is a fitness regimen for moms, where they bring the kids in a stroller to the gym and they work out with the stroller and with the kids."

In short, the Army is making a concentrated effort to ensure that geographically dispersed soldiers have access to the same programs that soldiers do when they are on a homeland installation.

Home Front

"Well, I think that there are plenty of recreation opportunities out there on military bases, said Tammy Smith, of Penn State University, "but there is a large gap between military-offered services and services provided at home."

As an example, she said, "a wounded veteran is introduced to golf as a life-long recreation option while on the installation. He/she then begins working with the golf pro on the installation through instruction geared toward Wounded Warriors. Then, the wounded service member goes home. He/she calls a couple of courses and can't find anyone, then makes a call back to the military Golf Pro who does not have the answer, and so the new player is without an instructor and an opportunity to learn how to play. This is a gap that Penn State and the PGA are currently working to close."

Penn State is going to train golf pros on including Wounded Warriors in their instruction and play, and help develop a database of golf courses that have Certified Adaptive Golf Instructors that are "wounded warrior" friendly.

"We want to repeat that process for other organized sports and recreation programs," Smith said.

What researchers at Penn State have found is that many general recreation, sports and fitness providers don't know what to say or what to do if they were to come face to face with a wounded warrior seeking participation. This isn't to say that providers should fear the first person that comes in the door, Smith cautioned, but they should make sure their staff has some wounded-warrior-specific training.

Meanwhile, the Army has not only hired recreational therapists in the acute care rehabilitation hospitals like Walter Reed, but they are also beginning to hire recreational therapists for branch Headquarters to serve as inclusion coordinators, as well as recreational therapists for some of the installations as resources.

What Can You Do?

Everyone together has to honor our soldiers, both active and veteran.

"It is safe to say that we would love to see veterans participating in things like an inclusive recreation course," Bradner said. "In most communities where there is a large military population, we have community support coordinators that reach out to organizations and ask them for help. We show them how they can partner and help veterans."

If there is a community recreation center or a privately owned gym that wants to do something, first step is to go to Army One Source and find out if there is a community support coordinator near them. Pick up the phone and talk to that person. Visit your local VA hospital and say, "How can I help?"

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs itself runs several laudable programs.

One of those is the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, now in its 25th year. The Clinic got started because one recreation therapist from the Grand Junction, Colorado, V.A. Medical Center took one disabled veteran skiing. Santo (Sandy) Trombetta, the event founder and director, saw the dramatic impact that this ski trip had on this veteran and was determined to do more.

The very first National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic was held in 1987 at Powderhorn Resort in Colorado outside of Grand Junction with 87 disabled veterans.

This past March there were more than 400 registered to participate, with military service spanning from World War II to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Participation in the clinic is open to U.S. military veterans with qualifying disabilities such as traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, orthopedic amputations, visual impairments, certain neurological conditions and other disabilities. At the clinic, all participants develop winter sports skills and take part in a variety of workshops and educational sessions that will positively impact their rehabilitative journey and readjustment in their communities.

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