“Move your body, heal your mind.”

That is the mantra of Karen Pearson and Mitch Crouse of Billings who have launched a new non-profit aimed at helping veterans, in a very real and personal way – any veterans who are having trouble readjusting to civilian life.

Life experiences for both Karen and Mitch has taught them that there is great healing power in physical exercise and activity. But, as much as they understood the powerful connection between physical activity and mental health, they saw little being done to bring that kind of therapy to suffering veterans.

There are lots of studies demonstrating the great need, and reporting about the “unacceptable” rate of suicide among veterans; but, people would be amazed at how little is actually being done to alleviate the situation, claim the duo who have launched “Adaptive Performance Center” (APC), with the goal of truly addressing the problem. The thrust of APC is to provide a gym, exclusively for veterans, which will provide a safe haven, and affordable place for them to regain or maintain as much independent and active living as possible.

Every day in the United States approximately 22 veterans commit suicide. The rate is even higher in Montana which has more veterans and active service personnel, as a percentage of population, than any other state. The numbers are “shocking and continue to rise each year,” states an APC brochure, which explains, “We are here to change that by providing a facility that veterans will want to be part of and will assist them in returning to a more active life, thus reducing veteran suicide.”

A gym holds the potential of allowing veterans to continue a familiar life-style and to physically challenge themselves and to compete with others. It will also be a safe place to talk to others of similar backgrounds and like minds. Gains made in the gym in terms of fitness and positive self-image, translate into confidence and a sense of normalcy that allow them to reconnect with their families and society.

As was pointed out by a veteran and a member of the APC board, Ben Duncan, Billings, when a soldier is deployed “you spend more time with those people than with your family. When you have down time you are working out and doing exercises and competing with each other, and you are responsible for doing important and challenging things. When you get hurt or are discharged that is all gone in an instant. Suddenly there is nothing. You are maybe alone or don’t know your family and don’t know your future.”

A dedicated gym with professionals available to assist in physical training and meeting goals, will serve as a very practical, sensible means of transitioning.

It’s not been easy getting a dedicated gym open, despite resounding public support for the mission and goals of APC. They hope to locate a gym at 1420 Broadwater, but finding an available site was difficult, and now getting through the hurdles of city building restrictions is proving formidable. In the meantime, Mitch and Karen laud the cooperation of Yellowstone Fitness Center, which has provided generous access to their facilities for disabled veterans who are already part of APC.

“We are breaking new ground,” said Karen about APC. Karen is a licensed mental health counselor, who was previously married to a veteran and who saw first-hand the struggles faced by returning veterans. Mitch and Karen hope to eventually see APC established in every state across the nation. Billings will be the pilot program, which they hope to repeat in Helena and Missoula – and then on to other states.

Members are asked to pay $19.95 monthly; but if they can’t, that’s OK. No one will be turned away because they can’t afford it, said Mitch. Covering those costs are part of what contributions are for, such as a contribution they have already received from the Westend Exchange Club which will cover 75 memberships.

Many veterans - - highly skilled and highly trained – are put on disability because of injuries and told that they can expect no relief from chronic pain or other stresses. Over time they can become addicted to medications and are then refused help by doctors. They become depressed and withdraw from social circles. They may quit jobs or give up on finding jobs. They isolate themselves and begin to feel like a burden rather than being the “well trained, highly educated and productive member of society” they really are.

Mitch can identify with much of that experience. All of his life, Mitch was involved in physical activities as a swimmer, a college athlete and as a swim coach who routinely trained championship teams. A few years ago, he was involved in a debilitating car accident from which recovery was long and arduous, and left him with chronic pain and sapped his spirits. Nothing seemed to help, and he at times found himself curled up on the floor, just wishing it would all end. He was probably somewhat suicidal even if he didn’t recognize it, himself, he said. Friends and family were concerned and urged him to get back in the gym.

Given his background and experience, “I should have known that was the solution,” said Mitch. And, indeed it was. “Keep moving,” says Mitch — that is the life-lesson that pulled him out of the despondency and pain.

His come-back began to ring through even more clearly when he began providing physical fitness training for the National Guard for troubled individuals who were at risk of being kicked out because of issues of depression, anxiety, poor choices, or being “terrified of being kicked out.”

“They would be so scared of being kicked out of the National Guard, and yet they were unable to do anything about it,” said Mitch.

Karen, too, was providing physical fitness training for the National Guard, and given her background, the dots began to connect. Besides having been married to a veteran and having known military friends and families, Karen had worked with the military about suicide prevention and presented at the Pentagon on a family reunification and re-integration program.

As Mitch and Karen worked with disabled veterans and troubled servicemen for the National Guard, and began to see the great successes some of them achieved, and as they began to talk about what they were witnessing and understood to be true, the idea of APC began to emerge. 

From every corner of the community their idea has been greeted with enthusiasm. From the leadership of the National Guard to other non-profit organizations, who are willing to contribute. US Senator Steve Daines and US Representative Greg Gianforte have been very supportive and have offered assistance. APC has also received a substantial contribution from the Bentley Foundation. And, sales of t-shirts on their website (www.adaptiveperformancecenter.com), which help support APC, has been robust. (APC t-shirts were in fact, recently, worn in the re-enactment of the Bataan Death March in New Mexico.)

One of their biggest coups is an agreement with Rocky Mountain College for students in their occupational therapy program. They will send students as interns to help in training and coaching veterans for the next ten years.

They have had fundraisers which they proclaim were not only very successful, but were actually “fun.” “We want people to have fun with our fundraisers and not to give out of a sense of guilt,” said Mitch. But, holding more fundraisers, launching a membership drive and actually being able to provide full-fledged services to waiting veterans is dependent upon being able to open the gym, as soon as possible. There are, in fact, veterans patiently waiting for that to happen, and the continued delay is contributing to their continued despair, said Mitch.

That brings the story back to their biggest stumbling block. Everyone wants to see APC succeed – except perhaps the City of Billings, they say. “The attitude which we have encountered is one of obstruction, more so than any desire to see us succeed,” said Karen. All the hoops and red tape they have encountered comes as a surprise to Karen and Mitch. They had no idea that this is what businesses must go through and they are worried that they will not be able to open at the location they have found.

“We aren’t asking to cut corner, we just want someone to help us,” said Karen.

Even though several businesses have been located at the site over the past few years, the City of Billings is requiring that APC get a “change in use” permit, as well as obtain more parking and install a new ventilation system – something they are not sure the building owner will want to do. The site includes 20 parking spaces, but the city is requiring 46, even though there is nothing in the APC business plan that indicates they would ever need that many spaces. Neighboring properties have generously agreed to allow the use of their parking lots, but lamented Karen, the city wants those property owners to sign a ten year commitment to that effect. “Who would ever do that?” she asks.

The equipment, flooring and contractors are all in place waiting for a “push of the button,” to move forward.

After considerable back and forth with city officials, it now appears that APC will have to apply for a variance, a formal process which will delay by a matter of weeks or months their opening, as well as costing more in fees and architectural services– although one local architect – Scott Atwood of Atwood Architecture —  has volunteered his services at no charge – reflecting, again, the kind of support APC is getting from the rest of the community.