The military culture teaches soldiers that they have to push through difficulties.

Courtesy of Catch a Lift Fund

The High-Energy Activity That's Healing the Invisible Scars of War

The military requires soldiers to be physically fit. When they return from deployment, the gym is one place that service members can feel at home.

Jeremiah Montell, a Navy petty officer with 17 years of service, takes out his frustrations at his UFC gym. “He can knock the heck out of a boxing bag,” says Lynn Coffland, founder of Catch a Lift Fund, a nonprofit that funds a gym membership or home workout equipment for 2,500 post-9/11 veterans, including Montell. In the past year, Lynn witnessed as Montell lost 70 pounds, stop taking medication and began crafting homemade American flags — all signs of healing.

Lynn has seen firsthand how physical activity and healing go hand in hand. Her brother Christopher J. Coffland, a fitness enthusiast always heading out to “catch a lift” — his term for hitting the gym — enlisted in the Army one month before he turned 42 years old. Dropping him off at the airport, Lynn asked through tears, “What do I do if you don’t come back?” After cracking a joke, Chris got serious, saying, “I probably won’t come back, but I’ve had a great run and I’m ready to meet Jesus. If I can put myself in the place of another man that has family back home, I will.” In 2009, two weeks after being deployed to Afghanistan, a roadside bomb killed Chris and injured two other Marines. As Lynn pondered how to memorialize her brother, messages from people who’d lifted weights with him in boot camp started flooding Lynn’s inbox.

“There was no program that the VA had set up yet for fitness,” Lynn remembers. “Every active-duty service-member has to be physically fit…Many men and women I talk to, they say [exercise is] their happiest memories. If they’re on base or out in another country, they work out. They have lots of laughs, a lot of friendship and bonding. They come home, and everything’s different. They don’t even know who they are anymore, they say. We get them back to that very basic core that they know existed, which was fitness.”

Catch a Lift Fund started by gifting gym memberships to three veterans in February 2010. The soldiers could pick any spot they wanted: 24-Hour Fitness or Crossfit, a place with pilates machines or a pool. Recovery and reintegration started almost immediately.

To find more participants, Lynn’s father wrote letters to every Veterans Administration hospital nationwide. Today, the group has a waiting list of more than 300 veterans. For those who find a gym stress-inducing, or those in rural areas, the fund pays for home systems.

“The culture has taught them that you have to push through,” but trauma “never goes away,” Lynn says. “You have to work on it so it stays at bay. Through fitness, through friendship and camaraderie, that’s how they’re healing.”

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]