The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

April 18, 2013

Sports & Wellness Program pilot under way this week at Spire Institute

Star Beacon

HARPERSFIELD TOWNSHIP — Four tours of duty in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division left Bob Simonovich drained and depressed.

“I was trying to deal with a lot,” said Simonovich, an Akron-area resident who left the military in July 2012. “I did not want to leave the house; I did not want to do anything.”

Wednesday afternoon, a radically different Simonovich joined other veterans in a game of kick ball at Spire Institute, which is hosting the National Veterans Sports and Wellness Program this week. More than 40 veterans from 16 states, along with 14 of their mental health professionals, are involved in the program, which is a pilot for the nation.

“I feel really good,” said Simonovich as he took a break from the game. “You feel like there is hope for the future.”

Spire Institute partnered with the Department of Veteran Affairs and the U.S. Olympic Committee to hold the program at Spire, said Dave Tostendrude, director of the National Veterans Sports & Wellness Program.

He said that Spire exudes respect for the nation’s veterans while offering state-of-the-art training facilities, a caring staff and family atmosphere.

“(The veterans) feel safe here,” Tostenrude said. “They feel encouraged here.”

Lodging is at Quail Hollow, where evening activities include yoga, meditation and socializing.

Dr. Edgardo Padin, a combat veteran and director of psychological services for the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, said that the Department of Veterans Affairs does a good job providing counseling and medication for veterans suffering posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mood disorders. But recreational and nutritional education have not been as abundant. The sports and wellness program at Spire this week is designed to address those options while providing a blueprint for a national program.

Veterans learned about the all-expenses paid program through their mental health care provider. The veteran’s primary care provider was required to make a recommendation, based upon the physical and mental abilities of the patient and the benefits they would derive from participation.

Tostenrude said they purposely kept the effort small this year because it is a pilot program and they wanted to provide as much one-on-one time with coaches as possible. The Department of Veteran Affairs provided the mental-health coaches while Spire provided coaches in court sports, running, nutrition and cooking.

The veterans were assigned to squads, with two coaches per squad.

“They make sure the guys maintain their motivation,” Padin said. “If something happens to trigger the PTSD, (the mental health professional) can take them aside and help them get settled down.”

At the end of the day, each veteran goes through a de-briefing session with a coach. And each veteran will leave Spire with a personalized fitness and nutrition plan to follow once they get back to their home community.

“We’re teaching them what they can find in their local neighborhood and teaching them how to find the information and join their local club,” said Chris Stancliff, Spire’s track and field events manager.

Volleyball, basketball, soccer, running, badminton, swimming and weight lifting are among the activities veterans learn about and engage in at Spire. All skill levels are accommodated; some of the veterans have not exercised in 20 years.

“What I like about the Spire coaches is they are able to attend to everybody’s skill level. If there are newbies in the group, they can work with them, as well as the more experienced. They are very good at that,” Padin said.

Improper nutrition can worsen mood disorders, and each squad took a turn cooking a meal for the other squads under the watchful eye and instruction of Spire’s culinary staff. Some of the veterans had never diced vegetables or learned to cook something as basic as pasta. Simonovich said the nutrition and culinary skills segment was probably the most useful portion of the program for him.

“That was excellent,” he said. “It taught me how to eat right. I was not eating all that great.”

Veterans suffering from mood disorders also tend to be isolated; at least one of the veterans attending lives a hermit-like existence “back in the woods.” Steven Nyquist, a veteran from Seattle, said he’s seen veterans who were withdrawn on Monday come out of their shells and interact with their comrades in both recreational and social settings.

“There are a lot more smiles today (Wednesday) than there were on Monday,” Nyquist said.

“They may come from different eras, but as soon as they arrived, they were all comrades,” Tostenrude said. “The way they treat and support each other, it’s really been amazing.”

A 20-year veteran, Nyquist said there was nothing like this program when he came home from the Gulf War. As a result of the Sports and Wellness Program, he’s been able to connect to both younger and older veterans.

“The best part is the team work and building a bond with people I didn’t know before,” he said.

When Nyquist returns to Seattle, he plans to build upon what he learned at Spire by doing more swimming. Simonovich joined a YMCA a couple of weeks before arriving at Spire and plans to put that membership to good use. He plans to focus on running and perhaps get into basketball as he works at rebuilding his life.

“We find that sports and recreational activity really help them deal with their problems. I really believe that,” Nyquist said.