BY SEAN MARKEY | Office of Academic Research Annual Report
It’s a Friday lunch hour, and seven Army veterans filter into a second floor gym at a Vermont National Guard armory on the Norwich campus. Many of the men and women have served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all have been wounded or injured while on duty.
Athletic trainer Carrie Beth Pine, a 36-year-old Army veteran and mother of two, writes the day’s workout in black magic marker on a mirrored wall. As her smartphone pumps out a 30-year pop playlist on portable speakers, the wounded warriors chat and ease into Pine’s workout.
As the hour progresses, Pine—a Norwich triple major—offers encouragement over kettle ball squats and inverted rows. “Is that an extra [rep]? Are you doing something extra?” she says, keeping a sharp eye on her charges.
A middle-age Army vet (name withheld for privacy) pulls up during a Hungarian lunge. After 20 years of active duty, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is 50 days from retirement. He shares that his knee is sore. “How about we do front raises instead?” Pine says, suggesting he switch to a weightlifting arm exercise. “That way you’re not aggravating the hell out of your knee.” If not for the Army t-shirts and tight haircuts, the workout could resemble any lunch-time corporate wellness program. But there’s some serious science behind the sweat.
The wounded vets are participating in a study called the Collegiate Warrior Athlete Initiative. The protocol is designed to learn whether a “buddy system” that partners college athletes with wounded warriors can effectively engage veterans to improve their physical and mental health and help them reintegrate into civilian life.
Today’s group, the third and final cohort of the year-long study at Norwich, is one month into their 12-week program. The volunteer subjects have signed up for 150 minutes of exercise per week, Fitbit activity tracking, and weekly TED-talk-style lectures to spark their minds. Topics range from nutrition and meditation to plate tectonics and love poetry.
NU researchers are also recording benchmark physical and mental health indicators at the one, six, and twelve-week mark. These include BMI (body mass index); a self-report RAND sleep survey; and the 21-question Beck Depression Inventory to assess mood.
Norwich School of Nursing Director Paulette Thabault, DNP, APRN-BC, FAANP, is leading the study with help from nursing faculty colleagues Llynne Kiernan, PhD, RN-BC, and Lorraine Pitcher, PhD, RN. Their work is part of a broader study developed for Boston College by retired Army Col. Susan Sheehy, PhD, RN, and led by principal investigator Ann Burgess.
“We have a lot of military, who come back from deployments… with a variety of injuries,” Thabault says, speaking in her basement office in the NU Bartoletto science complex. “Historically, there have been some challenges around reintegrating them into society.”
For many veterans, those challenges extend beyond physical injuries. Thabault says many experience post-traumatic stress, sleep disorders, anxiety, and difficulty reestablishing their relationships.
The Wounded Warrior Project, a national nonprofit founded in 2003 to help injured servicemen and women, estimates that more than 54,000 U.S. service members have been severely wounded in conflicts since 9/11.
An additional 300,000 service members have suffered traumatic brain injuries during that period, while 400,000 experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The nonprofit awarded a $250,000 research grant to support the Collegiate Warrior Athlete Initiative study, which Boston College investigators invited Norwich to join.
A large and growing body of research continues to highlight the link between exercise and improved physical and mental health. Part of the work of the wounded warrior study at Norwich and Boston College explores needs matching.
“We have warriors all over the country,” Thabault explains. “We have universities and colleges all over the country” with workout facilities and potential volunteer pool of student athletes.
“If this could be a national model, it would be just a great opportunity for us to really address our warriors.” That is the vision of the study’s principal investigator Ann Burgess.
Kiernan, an assistant professor at the Norwich School of Nursing, says she and her study colleagues are looking to foster engagement. “We’re trying to get the warriors engaged in a weekly workout routine. With that, we’re hoping that improves their mood and maybe other aspects of their life.”
Early signs suggest the program has already helped many participants. Thabault says warriors set personal goals at the beginning of the program, and many have achieved them. “That’s been really important,” Thabault says.
One warrior in the Boston College program, for example, had trouble with his back. “His individual goal was to be able to lift up his small child,” Thabault says, adding that by the end of the twelve-week program, he could.
While Norwich researchers have enlisted two to three NU students as volunteers for each study cohort, there haven’t been enough for a true 1:1 “buddy system.” So they modified the protocol to create a group circuit workout model. The change appears successful, with vets working out as often as five times a week.
Back in the Vermont National Guard armory gym, the wounded warriors gather to share a few thoughts at the end of their Friday workout. “It’s easier with the group motivation,” says one female Army captain. “Otherwise, I’d be like [stuff] it.”
“I have less aches and pains than when I started,” says the male vet with the sore knee. He adds that some lecture topics didn’t sync with him, meditation in particular. But a middle-aged Army colleague disagrees. He says he’s already applied some of the meditation tools discussed to improve his sleep.
The warriors also talk about the general wear and tear that active duty in a war zone imposes on a human body. Performing as many as two to three daily missions “outside the wire” of their base, soldiers carry 120 pounds of body armor and rucksack gear.
Then there are the countless hours spent slamming over war-torn, third world roads in military vehicles with rough suspension.
“Without looking at the specific data results, we have noted that our warrior athletes are able to recover from some of the wear and tear of the battlefield,” says retired Air National Guard Lt. Col. Kim Swasey, who was forced to end a 26-year-military career after breaking her neck.
Swasey participated in the first cohort of the Collegiate Athlete Warrior Initiative at Norwich last summer and has since stayed on as a workout buddy and research assistant. Swasey says the program helped her recovery. “[It] put [me] back on a path toward physical and mental fitness,” she says.
Norwich and Boston College researchers gave a podium presentation on their research and findings at the April 2017 Eastern Nursing Research Society Conference in Philadelphia.