DULUTH, Minn.—Seven veterans recently returned from a week of backpacking together in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
For the next three months, they'll meet three times a week at IST Crossfit in Duluth as part of the 23V Recon program. The program, operated by Duluth-based 23rd Veteran, combines physical and mental health activities to recondition veterans and current service members who have returned from deployment. Participants also receive a 100-page "playbook" that includes the program rules and explanations of combat stress and panic attacks, which helps them complete assignments between sessions. Civilians in the program help veterans build trust and connections — the current session is still seeking civilians to participate. Find details at 23rdveteran.org.
The military does a good job of giving service members the needed military mindset, but that mindset isn't needed in civilian life and veterans aren't retrained to return to a civilian way of thinking, said Mike Waldron, 23rd Veteran executive director and a former Marine.
"We want happier veterans. We want them to be much better adjusted to living in the civilian world and that's where the reconditioning comes in," Waldron said.
Waldron said it took years after combat to realize he was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and to understand what was triggering them.
"It took me about five years before I figured out how to pull out of those symptoms and I did it through physical fitness and socializing. All the buddies that I served with that I kept in contact with in the Marine Corps had all the symptoms I did and they were struggling just as bad and it was really difficult and really scary," he said.
He said he felt an obligation to help veterans and formed 23rd Veteran to spread knowledge about veterans' mental health issues.
23V Recon is mainly funded by 23rd Veteran's annual Nearly Naked Ruck March. The march is scheduled for Saturday in Minneapolis and March 18 in Duluth.
Waldron visited Congress earlier this week, where he talked with congressional members and staff about 23rd Veteran and challenges veterans face upon returning to civilian life. Waldron plans to expand the program to the Twin Cities next year and he hopes to expand to other states in the future.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, said he supports 23rd Veteran as "an innovative and exceptional program" that helps veterans after leaving the military.
"By using scientific research and what we now know about how PTSD develops, 23rd Veteran works to address PTSD and mental health through positive psychology, physical activity and group camaraderie. I would like to see this program expanded as a national public-private partnership to help veterans all across America," Nolan said in a statement.
Canosia Township resident Jim Kmecik, who spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy and was discharged in 2009, completed 23V Recon last year and said it was an enlightening experience that helped him learn how to cope with stress.
"It helped me realize some of the challenges I didn't really acknowledge that I was facing, as far as anxiety, stress-related, how to cope with stress in a better way," Kmecik said.
Superior resident Jenny Ion served in the 148th Air National Guard for more than a decade until 1997 and served in Operation Desert Storm. She's now a working mother of two whose husband is still serving in the 148th. She wasn't focused on herself, especially on her health, and although she was skeptical about the program at first, completing 23V Recon last year helped her get back on track, she said. She was one of the older veterans in the group and it was challenging, but she did it, she said.
"It was a really good experience for me as far as you're never too old to make a difference in your life," she said.
Brendan Willis, a trainer at IST Crossfit who leads 23V Recon's fitness sessions, said he sees changes in the veterans throughout the program. There's some struggles at first, but by the third or fourth week of the program, he sees the veterans' attitudes changing to "I can do this, it's not as hard as I thought," he said.
Willis isn't a veteran himself, but he respects what veterans have gone through.
"Sometimes they're in tough condition when they get back and people just brush it under the rug and no one really realizes. For me to help them and use my skill to help them is the biggest honor, really, and I enjoy every second of it," Willis said. "Being able to help them and run through these (sessions) and see the positive effect is the best feeling I've had a strength and conditioning coach here."
For more information, visit 23rdveteran.org.