Commentary

Affected, not defeated: Injured veterans strive for success amid pandemic

The harsh indifference of how life experiences during a time of pandemic affect people — physically, emotionally, and financially — has demanded attention around the world. In its 11th annual Warrior Survey, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) identified the pandemic’s initial impact on more than 30,000 post-9/11 veterans registered with WWP.

At the time of this survey, more than 60 percent of warriors reported experiencing moderate to severe depression symptoms, 66 percent reported loneliness, and 30 percent had recent suicidal ideation. These numbers set an unprecedented need for immediate care for our nation’s heroes. Still, the same report shows that despite the need, warriors have seen a disruption in care, with more than half (59 percent) reporting physical health appointments being postponed or canceled, and 38 percent reporting mental health appointments being postponed or canceled.

The need to explore the negative effects more thoroughly on this group of warriors prompted a recent deep-dive study into the survey’s results. The December 2020 study, Invisible Wounds and Covid-19: Heightened Risk for Wounded Warriors, found a significant decrease in COVID-19-related quality of life among its warrior population. It specifically identified WWP warriors experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, loneliness, or suicidal ideation as those more likely to suffer hardship.

Through the in-depth study, WWP found those living with PTSD are more than three times as likely to have mental or physical health-related challenges during the pandemic compared with warriors without mental health challenges.

Nearly a year since causing a global pandemic, the coronavirus is still impacting how warriors receive care, and it is imperative to bolster our efforts to increase psychological well-being and resilience among warriors.

At WWP, we know physical wellness directly correlates to the mental wellbeing of warriors as they recover from injury and illness. In the survey, approximately 70 percent of the warriors surveyed believe physical activity decreases feelings of stress or tension and improves mental health. In April 2020, WWP modified its programs to serve warriors from the comfort of their own homes — virtually. This allowed WWP physical wellness programs to continue making an impact — giving way to more than 18,300 warrior and family engagements. While businesses and gyms have reopened in many states, WWP is seeing continued interest in virtual physical fitness, nutrition, and other such wellness programs.

We’ve witnessed the tremendous success of warriors who have engaged in physical wellness programs during the global pandemic. Nearly 850 warriors are active with WWP’s online cycling community and regularly connect online through coffee socials, virtual riding challenges, cycling maintenance tutorials, and more. Warriors such as Amber Melgoza-Kelesza invested time in recommitting to a healthier lifestyle. Before becoming involved with the online community, Amber said she couldn’t cycle more than a quarter of a mile and only with great pain in her back. WWP staff guided her by video to find the best adaptations for her bicycle to accommodate her injuries. Since March, she began riding regularly with her husband and is now averaging 12 miles each ride. She celebrates her wins — no matter how big or small — and considers them milestones that lead to a healthier life. Amber celebrates her longest ride of 17 miles, increasing mobility, and decreased feelings of isolation and depression among those wins. She said, “Without the programs and engagement from Wounded Warrior Project, my life during the COVID-19 outbreak would look a lot different — as would I.” She has rediscovered her identity.

In addition to online fitness classes, WWP’s virtual programs include multi-day health education workshops with 90 days of support from a physical health and wellness coach. Through the virtual workshop, warriors gain instruction in basic movement, nutrition, recovery, and optimal sleep habits. Following this kickstart, Michael Allison worked on tangible goals with his WWP coach and completed biweekly check-ins, gaining additional motivation and support from fellow warriors along the way. Michael readily admits that prior to the pandemic, he lacked dedication to his physical wellness. His coaching program began in June 2020, and he said the 90-day goals gave structure and accountability through his journey. He focused his efforts on learning which foods help boost his metabolism. He has seen consistent progress through his transformation, and now says he’s enjoying better sleep, reduced anxiety, a stronger state of mind, and an increased sense of community. His biggest takeaway? “I’m much happier with myself and my new way of living,” Michael said.

And while the virtual component of program offerings will never go away, WWP has begun to safely offer more in-person programs. The combination of virtual and in-person programs will help reach warriors with different needs for their recovery.

As a result of new outreach methods and support, we are seeing warriors improve their quality of life by engaging with programs that directly impact their psychological well-being and resilience. Since the global pandemic, of warriors who are coached through the WWP physical wellness program, more than 40 percent of warriors report better quality nutrition, 48 percent of warriors report reduced pain, 52 percent report changes in sleep quality, and combined, warriors have lost more than 5,300 pounds. Just as there is great need in this pandemic, there are great successes.

Warriors are affected — but they are not defeated. Click here to learn more about WWP’s adaptive sports, physical health and wellness, and soldier ride programs. Contact: Vesta M. Anderson – public relations, vanderson@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904-570-0771.

Tracy Farrell is the engagement and physical health & wellness vice president at the Wounded Warrior Project.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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