Picture today’s “typical” U.S. military serviceman. He’s in his early twenties. If he’s lucky, his mother and Uncle Sam have cooked for him his entire life, relieving him of the need to learn how. When left to his own devices, he gets by on a steady stream of delivery pizza and energy drinks. Not exactly the diet of champions.
But he is a warrior, and his body is young, strong and resilient. His daily, boot-camp-inspired regimen of running, push-ups and pull-ups keeps him lean and fit.
Now picture him again — returning from the battlefield, suffering from a traumatic brain injury, loss of limbs, gunshot wounds or post-traumatic stress.
With these injuries, the standard exercise fare of running, push-ups and pull-ups may no longer be an option for keeping this warrior in the fight. According to a recent survey of 13,956 wounded, ill or injured military service members and veterans, this warrior is statistically likely to be overweight or obese, experience insomnia, struggle with mental and emotional stress and be taking a multitude of prescribed medications.
This is the reality for many wounded, ill and injured warriors the non-profit organization Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness (SFHW) serves at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
It’s also the reality for many service members, veteran patients and their families at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) in Bethesda, Md., who attended the first SFHW workshop on holistic nutrition at WRNMMC on June 23. Attendees will also receive a post-workshop assessment, coaching and sustained contact — all thanks to a donation by workshop sponsor PLH Group, Inc.
SFHW’s Warrior Wellness Program, which also includes adaptive functional movement exercise and mindful yoga therapy, starts with nutrition. The focus is on delivering nutrient density through juicing, smoothies and “super foods,” such as spinach, kale and chia seeds, to help support tissue and injury repair, reduce body fat, increase energy and enhance overall mental and physical health, according to Elijah Sacra, SFHW executive director.
“Holistic nutrition was a tough sell to the guys at Camp Lejeune at first,” Sacra admitted. “There’s a huge link between food and mood, but to a bunch of young Marines, it sounds like some kind of new-age craziness. Then again, when you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, you get to the point where you’re willing to try anything.”
A more helpful approach, they found, was to tell wounded Marines that Mayan and Aztec warriors consumed chia seeds before going into battle, Sacra said, and that the Wall Street Journal reported that an all-pro NFL running back supplements his diet with chia seeds for energy and digestive health. And, yes, these are the same seeds used to grow Chia Pets.
And so, a handful of skeptical young Marines at Camp Lejeune did, indeed, decide to try the SFHW Warrior Wellness Program a few years ago, and the change it made in them, both physically and mentally, ultimately led to the program becoming adjunct training for the base’s Wounded Warrior Battalion, Sacra said.
“We had guys who lost 40 pounds and went from being on 10 to 15 prescription meds to two, one or even none, and a few, like Cpl. Michael Politowicz, who returned to active duty.”
Today, some of those young Marines whose lives were transformed are now “paying it forward” by helping to spread the healing and empowerment message to their fellow wounded warriors. One example is Sgt. Chris Hancock, who took part in the SFHW Warrior Wellness Program two years ago, after losing both legs in Afghanistan. He is now enrolled in the Holistic Nutrition School at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition on a scholarship awarded by SFHW.
Sacra, himself, is a Marine veteran and personal trainer who freely admits he “never drank water and never met a dark green, leafy vegetable I liked,” until he met SFHW co-founder Clarissa Kussin, director of operations and nutrition services. A certified holistic health counselor and natural foods chef who owned a juice bar and café, Kussin is the genius behind SFHW’s food and nutrition program. She’s also the one who ensures that SFHW recipes produce smoothies that actually taste good, “not like they were made from lawn clippings,” Sacra said.
“You have to address nutrition if you want to get someone who’s overweight, depressed and physically impaired moving in order to be able to progress to exercise and yoga,” he said. “That’s why we’re so grateful to PLH for enabling us to bring this first open workshop to Walter Reed, where you find some of the most severely wounded warriors in the nation.”
PLH Group Senior Vice President Tom McShane, who works out of the Timonium, Md., office of PLH Group subsidiary AIR2, knew Sacra from when McShane hired him as a trainer to prepare his daughter for West Point a few years ago. Several key PLH Group executives are military veterans, including Lacy Kiser, PLH Group Senior Vice President of Human Resources, and Todd Gieseman, Vice President of Operations for subsidiary R.B. Hinkle Construction of Sterling, Va., and they were proud to support bringing the SFHW workshop, which they attended, to WRNMMC, McShane said.
PLH is a provider of construction and maintenance services to the electric power delivery and pipeline industries in North America. Its customers include many of the largest utilities, regional cooperatives, renewable energy developers, commercial and industrial customers, and major oil and gas producers and midstream companies.
PLH, a company started by Energy Capital Partners, has acquired Sun Electric, TESSCO, AIR2, Auger Services, Snelson Companies, IPS Engineering, Southeast Directional Drilling, M&M Pipeline Services, Energy Services South, Pipeworx, TTR Substations and R.B. Hinkle Construction. PLH is actively seeking to further expand its service offerings and geographic footprint.