It’s dusk in the woods. We’re sitting on benches around a fire, plumes of smoke gradually reaching everyone—22 ripped military vets in all, and me. Coughs erupt sporatically. Randy Lloyd, a 34-year-old Army-vet-turned-bodybuilder, is up tonight. He’s holding the talking stick, which is a giant mallet affectionately referred to as the “hammer of tears.” He pauses after every few sentences to regain his composure.
Lloyd's story is a tough one to tell, and he’s clearly reliving the trauma as he recounts the details. There are vivid descriptions of bloody combat in Iraq, followed by stories of an opioid dependence that nearly killed him after he came home. "I remember waking up in a grocery store parking lot—being shaken by a paramedic after overdosing," he says. It happened after an outing where he and his friends were doing heroin and coke. He'd been dead for a few minutes, he tells us.
So he tried rehab again—as in, really tried. His mother supported him again, through his second round in recovery, which was more successful. But Lloyd had lost so much by then, including his girlfriend and her children, his tight family unit that began to unravel as his drug use progressed. He tears up when he repeats the words he said to the kids the night the couple separated: "I have to go away for a little while and get better." He tells me later how lucky he is to still have them in his life at all.
There are visible moments of commiseration from each of the men and women sitting around me. A lot of them are living with addiction, or have in the past. One particularly young vet whose name I don’t know has tears rolling down his face. He doesn’t bother to wipe them away. His breaths are deep and controlled. I can tell that he wants to cry harder.
Bonfire group therapy is not mentioned when veterans apply to the FitOps Foundation training camp. The non-profit’s three-week "live on camp" program has been running for two years now, at different locations throughout the year based on the geographical demand from veterans (this time, it's at a serene, bucolic camp two hours outside New York, in East Stroudsburg, PA). It’s a fitness-certification program comprised of academic instruction, fitness regimens, and personal and professional development that culminates in a “graduation” and assistance with job placement. The camp is largely funded by Matt Hesse’s company Performix, a suite of premium, performance driven-supplements, as well as Performix House, an upscale training center in Manhattan. An Army vet himself, Hesse’s aim is to empower veterans, many of whom are now struggling with depression, addiction, and PTSD during their transition back to civilian life, by providing career opportunities and a sense of community. The whole “give a man a fish” deal and then some.
Transition stress hits when a vet leaves the military to return to civilian life. In a lot of instances, it can be a very startling rebirth of sorts. You no longer have a specific, prescribed schedule, daily structure, or even life purpose. How smoothly this transition goes is integral to health outcomes, explains Irina Wen, clinical psychologist and director of the Military Family Clinic and NYU Langone Health. And by now, the disheartening mental health statistics for the veteran community are pretty well-known. Experts tell us that 20 veterans die by suicide every day.
These outcomes affect a lot more people than the 1 percent of Americans who have served. “There’s a ripple effect to the families they’re a part of,” Wen tells me. “The effect of war does not stop at the veterans. They have spouses. They have children who, as a result, are also often affected in some way."
Lloyd finishes his story and it’s now quiet, save for the crackle of a now-struggling fire and people’s sniffles. The stillness is broken as people get up to dap, hug, and thank him for sharing some truly dark shit. One of these people is a lithe redhead named Andi Ward. When I first arrived at the camp to report this story, a few people told me, in hushed voices, to see if she was down to talk. “She’s got a story,” they all said cryptically.
Ward is 32, though any civilian passing her in the cereal aisle might guess she was a decade younger. But at the camp that morning, when I make eye contact from across a bench, I can tell that her 20s are dead and the ashes have long been scattered.
Ward sits with one leg curled into her, comfortable and contemplative. I ask questions carefully, but it's soon clear that she's willing to spill the difficult details of the last 15 years. Ward’s desire to go into law enforcement—despite her teenage years having been dotted with infractions for drinking—attracted her to military life. Her first experiences didn’t go as planned. “I was raped in A-school by I don’t know how many people. Some people. So that was pretty rough on me,” she tells me, almost as an aside. (A-school is a colloquial term for post boot-camp training.) “So I started drinking even more. Everyone in the military drinks a lot to deal with all the stress. But being a female, I stood out."
There was another point in Ward’s military career, she tells me, when she got into a physical altercation with a group of male marines. Her tone is detached, kind of like she’s already spent time working through all of it. I wonder how much of her effort in various recovery programs was spent forgiving, letting go of the reality that there is a rotten part of the system she devoted so much of herself to.
Ward says she loved serving, though. She was a construction electrician, building bases for troops to stay in Iraq during her seven-month deployment—a time during which she was sober, she tells me. She worked on a small team with people who were more highly ranked than she was, but Ward held her own. “I’m a natural leader because of all the siblings—five brother and two sisters, all mostly younger. I know how to tell people what to do without making them feel stupid. So a lot of people would listen to me.” I get it. She’s got a palpable air of authority that I feel every time she walks into a room.
Ward’s addiction issues reappeared after she returned from Iraq. She tells me that her command did what they could, but their preliminary attempts to help—which mostly included Zoloft, she says—were not comprehensive enough to do much. “I was always a big drinker so they sent me to rehab twice,” she says. She didn’t complete it the first time (the holidays interrupted the program) but she did go back the following year. Despite completing the military’s rehab program, Ward wonders if she hadn’t been convincing enough when she told them she was struggling.
“I ended up cutting my wrist and taking a bunch of Motrin,” she says. “Not to kill myself but just to [show] that I was so distressed—to be like, 'Put me back in rehab, I’m dying here.' I knew they would listen to that.” Ward was discharged in 2010 for “failure to adapt.”
“A lot of veterans who are facing issues and a lot of the stuff that’s leading to suicide, mental illness, and homelessness in the veteran population isn’t about the PTSD from serving, necessarily,” says 27-year-old Erik Bartell, FitOps’ executive director. “It’s the transition stress, the unknown, the lack of support though that process.” Wen tells me that vets in general go from a group identity bolstered by unity and “really strong bonds that can never be replaced” to a very individualistic society at home. She says that that alone can sometimes be an insurmountable stressor. “That type of partnership and the buddies that you have there who are in life-or-death situations [with you] can never be replaced.”
Finding meaning and value in post-military work can be very challenging, Wen says; it’s like creating an entirely new identity for yourself. “We see a lot of veterans transition to other service-type careers, such as first responders, police officers, and firefighters; that’s always a more typical pathway of service,” she tells me. “So I can see how this personal-trainer model also very much fits into the service calling that a lot of veterans have, and sometimes have a hard time applying in the outside world.”
“Veterans want to serve. That’s the reason 90 percent of them signed up,” Bartell tells me. “They want to serve others—to have a purpose in life that’s beyond themselves.” If veterans can take their skills—the teaching others, the physical fitness, and the service element—and they can make a career out of it, it’s like they never left the service, he says. “They’re doing the same thing except they don’t have a gun in their hands.”
It’s earlier on the same day as the bonfire, and I’m in a classroom with the entire cohort and then some. A few people from the last round of camp have come back as “squad leaders,” to help guide the newbies. There are round tables with about five vets at each one, and they’re in full college-lecture mode. Everyone is fully engaged, taking notes, and asking insightful questions.
One of the squad leaders, Sherri Thomas (nicknamed “Moses”), is leading a discussion about how to calculate body fat percentage and why it matters. She’s not interested in being interviewed by me. In fact, she’s the only person at the camp who’s markedly unconcerned about me or my story; she just wants her people to pass this exam. I persist for much of the day—she’s a dynamic part of this whole operation and I want to know her deal—and finally succeed.
Thomas is sitting on a couch at the back of the classroom next to training textbooks and what appear to be lesson plans for the final part of camp. She taps away at her laptop as I settle in on the floor on front of her, like some kind of spiritual disciple. We start out in whispers, as to not disturb the others who are studying, but things get boisterous when I ask her how she ended up at FitOps.
"Yes," she tells FitOps' publicist, Madison Rizzo, who's sitting next me, cracking up. "I thought this place was a cult. I didn't know what I was getting into when I signed up. But they paid for flights and everything so I was like, Why not?" I quickly find that Thomas has no filter, and is hilarious. Despite her stoic exterior—I saw her smile maybe twice all day—her sense of humor was likely a major factor in her ability to thrive in some less-than-nurturing environments.
Thomas joined the army on a bet during her senior year of college in Baltimore and quickly took to airplane engineering. Six months in, she was deployed to Afghanistan for 18 months. (You’re not supposed to be over there for more than a year at a time but the next unit wasn’t ready, she tells me.) Six months after her return, she did another 18-month tour. It was cool, she says, until it wasn’t. “You have this siren going off that’s like, we’re about to be bombed. After a while, I was like ‘fuck it, I’m not leaving the bed. I’m [going to] stay here and watch Spartacus.”
Thomas made it back home, but with a severe drinking problem. “My mind broke. It took my sleep,” she says. “I had a problem drinking while I was there, so when I got home it was alcohol all day. When I woke up I had to have a shot.” She saw a Facebook ad for FitOps and applied, feeling like if this program was legit (and best case scenario, not a cult), it could be her last chance at getting her life back. She arrived at camp newly sober, freaking out, and physically ill from withdrawal.
“One of my squad leaders, AJ, was like, It’s okay, I been through it. She got me some crackers. They understood. They had me sit next to a trash can,” Thomas says. “From that point on, I was like, I’m not going to miss any lectures. I’m going to be in it.” And she’s been all in, to the point where she returned to donate her time to making sure the next cohort succeeds.
During the second part of class, Gabe Snow, a seasoned trainer from Performix House, is in from the city to help the group review material they’ll need to know in order to pass the National Exercise Trainers Association (NEDA) exam they’ll sit for the following week. Snow talks about the pitfalls of fat-shaming in a training—the least meathead-ish lecture you’d ever expect from such a class. Two hours later, they head to the gym for physical practice. Tomorrow, a doctor will be in to lecture on anatomy.
After Ward left the military, she re-enrolled in college and started taking stimulants, among other drugs, savoring the energy they gave her. “I did a little bit of everything for about five years. I ended up being a huge meth addict for five years. I did crack, I did MDMA. I did the stimulants mostly so I could drink without blacking out,” she tells me. “Then I started getting work dancing. I started working in the adult entertainment industry. I got really wrapped up into that world.” She quit the drugs, the escort life, and some of the toxic people that came along with that about two years ago, she says, and was able to take school more seriously.
Ward tells me her story not in chronological order, but in the order of what seems most important to her. She’s gentle with the words she uses to describe her life experiences—like someone who recently became aware of what her worth might be. She found a partner this year—her first real relationship, she says. “I didn’t want someone who wanted to be with me when I was a meth addict. So I always knew that I had to fix myself before I was going to find somebody who I’d want to be attracted to me.”
FitOps is indeed a certification program, but Ward tells me that for some of the attendees, the cert is the side dish. It’s cast-iron baked mac-and-cheese with the seasoned breadcrumbs on top, satiating and substantial, but still a side dish. Being around people who’ve been through at least some of what she has is even bigger for her. “For the first time in my life, I’m happy,” she says. “I’ve never been happy unless I was drinking. Now I’m happy just being myself. You can do anything with that.”
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