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Program for Injured Veterans Promotes Fitness

PLAINFIELD, ILL.  Keith Aguina, a veteran who is a quadriplegic, often encountered poor attitudes and physical barriers at the gym.

Staff didn’t know how to help Aguina, of Crest Hill – who enlisted in the military in 1977 – when he worked out. They often didn’t try.

That changed when Aguina joined Healthy Minds Healthy Bodies, which helps injured veterans attain their fitness goals. Aguina learned to use gym equipment for optimum cardiovascular fitness and strength. He also felt welcomed.

“Normalcy was back,” Aguina said. “I look forward to going to work out. Before, it took every ounce of energy just to go.”

Aguina works with personal trainer Anthony Ligammari at MPG Fitness in Plainfield, under the auspices of the Plainfield Park District. Ligammari underwent 16 hours of training with the program to learn how to work with injured veterans, and that impressed Aguina.

The trainers, Aguina said, don’t hesitate to approach someone with a disability.

“They know about balance and tipping points and the center of gravity and how to include us into the gym,” Aguina said. “Anthony treated me like everybody else – a person, not a person with a disability.”

Helping injured vets

Healthy Minds Healthy Bodies is part of the nonprofit veterans’ organization AllenForce, founded by Donna Allen-Sebok, a therapeutic recreation specialist. She thought of the program after someone asked her to help an injured veteran.

Allen-Sebok stressed that injuries need not be combat-related. They can be the result of accidents after service or other medical needs, such as physical problems from diabetes.

For instance, retired veteran Fred Jamison of Naperville, a new member who uses the program at Hometown Fitness in Plainfield, needs a knee replacement because of normal wear, but his doctor wants to build up his strength first, Jamison said.

“Healthy Minds Health Bodies helps them get back into fitness,” Allen-Sebok said, “which, as former servicemen, they know and love.”

Sessions may include using band weights, using body weight, improving core strength and learning how to modify workouts at home, Allen-Sebok said.

Injured veterans receive two one-year memberships at partnering fitness centers – one membership for the vet and one for a chosen training partner, up to 15 personal training sessions.

This may include monthly networking opportunities with mentors, peers and other veterans’ organizations, all free of charge. To participate, veterans must go two to three times a week. Veterans from all time periods are accepted.

Certified personal trainers who volunteer for the program receive training on working with vets who have amputations, brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions. They also learn about veteran culture.

Greg Eischen, a personal trainer at Hometown Fitness, has worked with about 10 veterans. Before he discusses their physical needs, Eischen wants to hear what they did as a veteran.

“One thing I learned is that they’re all different,” Eischen said. “No disabled veteran is like another disabled veteran. Some don’t even have a disability you can see.”

Focusing on the ability

Training taught Eischen that even quadriplegics are capable of movement from the neck down. He learned how to work with those movements.

“You find the ability,” Eischen said, “and not the disability.”

Eischen said he worked with one patient who uses a wheelchair on a special platform. The veteran lay on his stomach and did partial push-ups using risers.

“They want to get out of that chair,” Eischen said. “They’ve been living in that chair. We can get them to do things they didn’t know they could do.”

Plainfield U.S. Army veteran Fred Tymeson said Eischen began working with him last year after he had open-heart surgery. The two developed a friendship and now go cycling together.

Tymeson did not have that level of fitness immediately after surgery, and he credits the program for getting him back into shape.

“I couldn’t walk from the bed to the bathroom without gasping for breath,” Tymeson said.

Many of the personal trainers volunteer at least some of their hours to the program and get reimbursed for the remainder through the park districts that sponsor the program.

Cheryl Crisman, Plainfield Park District director, has been involved in the program since it began two years ago. She developed the idea of partnering with local fitness centers and is working to create a social aspect with the Plainfield program.

“There can be a disconnect that happens once a veteran leaves the military,” Crisman said.

One AllenForce volunteer is a veteran who has used the program. While stationed in Afghanistan in 2005, Aubrey Youngs, 33, of Shorewood fell and injured her spinal cord when the forklift she was using moved out from under her.

The following year, Youngs’ participated in the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. She continues to do so, most recently March 29 to April 3 in Colorado.

For Youngs – who competed in cross country and track in high school, took martial arts in college and snow skied before her accident – the chance to be fit and help other veterans is empowering.

“There’s nothing holding me back,” Youngs said. “If I want to do something, I find a way.”




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