Training Through Trauma

At CrossFit Walter Reed, the benefits of CrossFit aren’t always external.
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“Reject your sense of injury, and the injury itself disappears.”

Marcus Aurelius’ words are emblazoned across Jason Sturm’s forearm, and no tattoo has ever been more appropriate. After losing his left leg below the knee in a training accident at Fort Drum in New York, Sturm went through all the levels of grief before finally giving himself to CrossFit and finding a new purpose in life. “I went from being recovered to being an athlete,” he says, jokingly, as he writes the WOD on the ever-present whiteboard at CrossFit Walter Reed. Sturm’s road to recovery took a detour away from the Army’s prescribed rehab routine and into the box, but it paved the way for him to give to others what was given to him: a chance to be more than the sum of your parts, whether those parts are present or missing in action.

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The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, is the largest military medical center in the U.S., and it was designed to rehabilitate and recover military personnel who have sustained severe injuries. Solders who are wounded in action tend to land here to receive treatment and rehabilitation.

CrossFit Walter Reed lives in Building 226A, in a woodsy corner of the medical center near the busy Capital Beltway, which encircles Washington, D.C. It is a perfectly Spartan space donated by the Army’s MWR (Morale, Well-Being and Recreation) division and stocked with equipment donated by CrossFit HQ. It feels more like a club than an official box. There’s no permanent head coach, so instructors from local boxes volunteer their time once a week. There’s no programmed routine, only a three-day workout routine (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays), and no one keeps track of progress except the students themselves, who are a mixed bag of wounded warriors and their caregivers. As fewer troops are deployed and in the wake of the removal of our combat forces from Iraq, the number of amputee soldiers landing at Walter Reed has (thankfully) decreased. Still, the space remains open to train a broader group of athletes. On a daily basis, Sturm and his other instructors don’t know who they’re going to get, which presents a challenge.

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“We only have a three-day workout week, so we can’t focus as much on certain aspects of CrossFit like Olympic lifting,” he says. “Everything we teach at other CrossFit gyms on a dynamic or max week goes out the window here because we don’t have as much time with the students.”

Adding to the challenge of limited time are limited limbs because, like Sturm, not everyone has all four. These days, many of the military personnel treated are recovering from traumatic amputations. For this reason, Sturm separates the Olympic-lifting movements from the metabolic conditioning.

“There’s just not enough time to teach a student certain movements when you only see them for a few days a week and they leave after their rehab is done. We use kettlebells a lot because we can teach the movements without having to worry about the bar path. We can teach the front squat, overhead squat, snatches, cleans, push press, jerk, everything without the difficulties that come with using a bar.”

Think of this: The first time you tried a clean, it was pretty much a reverse curl because you didn’t know the proper technique involved. Now multiply that struggle by 10 when teaching a soldier who’s missing a leg or an arm. Teaching it with a kettlebell to a first-timer is a lot less complicated.

“The bar-path issues are taken care of because they realize they’re not trying to rip this thing off the ground with their arms and end up driving properly with their legs,” Sturm says. “It also takes the movement of dropping underneath the bar out. It’s a lot easier to teach a kettlebell movement to someone who has these issues than a barbell movement.”

Technique is very important to Sturm, especially with this demographic. He believes in using low weight and high reps and adding in plenty of running. A typical three-day week at Walter Reed involves a skill day, a strength day and a met-con day, or some combination of each. On a regular Tuesday, Sturm takes the class through a 15-minute, three-rep-max bench press followed by a met-con involving kettlebell swings, wall balls and push-ups with runs in between.

Nothing is off-limits, no matter how bad the injury. Adjustments are made where necessary, but everything is programmable, even if some people aren’t going to be able to do certain movements. For example, it’s unrealistic to expect an amputee to get below parallel on a squat with any semblance of balance. They have to relearn the movements over time, which is a challenge, but a good one to have. “It forces you to figure out those new things,” Sturm says. “Even a dual above-knee amputee can learn a clean-and-press from the floor, just without any hip drive.”

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Sturm talks the talk because he has walked the walk — literally. His own experiences inspired him to work with other amputees to pass on the lessons he learned the hard way. “There wasn’t a lot offered to wounded veterans when I was injured in 2002,” he says. “Physical therapy got me back to functioning daily, but I lost a lot of the strength and athleticism I had built in the Army.” He went back to globo gyms, but that style of training wasn’t doing anything for his general physical preparedness, an important facet of any soldier’s life. Exposed to CrossFit by a friend, Sturm instantly thought he couldn’t do it, but as he got healthier and stronger, the regular gym wasn’t keeping his interest and he wasn’t progressing. Finally, he gave in and went to his first box. “Right away I liked the panicky feeling of being in the middle of a WOD and feeling like my heart was trying to crawl out of my chest,” he remembers.

That’s one reason CrossFit works so well with wounded warriors. It’s a no-slack environment in which you pull your weight and get ribbed if you don’t, no matter how many fingers or toes you’re missing. It’s exactly what this demographic needs: a no-nonsense, smash-mouth physical challenge that leaves the warriors with a sense of accomplishment when the excitement ends.

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Overcoming a great injury is just as much a mental challenge and process as it is physical — as Sturm’s tattoo suggests. CrossFit is branded as elite fitness for a reason, and it finds no better home than with elite people who choose a life of action instead of inaction. They’re a different breed that will gladly trade the touchy-feely group therapy for the opportunity to prove they still can go where others won’t. Warriors are not the type to react well to coddling or they never would have joined the armed forces in the first place. They want to be treated like soldiers and Marines: genuinely and without sympathy.

Army Sergeant First Class Chris Carvalho blew out his elbow in Afghanistan and has very limited range of motion in his left arm, so jumping right into pull-ups and heavy lifting isn’t wise. During a Tuesday workout, instructor Andrea Bates warns Carvalho to take it easy on the push-ups if his elbow hurts, but that doesn’t compute, and he pushes himself to do more. The troop in him wants to drive on, but no matter how willing the mind is, the body has to be proportionately capable, and he does what he can even though it falls short of his expectations. It’s a zero-sum game.

“Soldiers want to be pushed,” Bates says. “They may be missing a leg, but I’ll push them just as hard as someone with two and say, ‘I know you can pick that weight up,’ and they do. I’ve seen guys missing all limbs and guys with no obvious injuries who are struggling with traumatic brain injury or cancer. Exercise is important because it helps them realize they can do more than they think they can.”

Bates has a unique perspective on the program. A former West Point cadet, she has a master’s degree in public health from UCLA and is working toward a Ph.D. in health administration while working full time in health care and competing in CrossFit competitions. In fact, there is probably no better candidate to plan workouts for wounded warriors. “The core work is great for stability and learning balance with prosthetic legs,” Bates says. “Deadlifting helps engage legs and core and strengthen the center of gravity, which is tricky for someone getting used to prosthetics. I’ll start them off with deadlifts, and then when they’re comfortable, go to cleans, then progress to clean-and-jerks.”

Bodyweight exercises are a staple of the program, as well, partly because the students have to get used to their new bodyweight. They may have deployed at 220 pounds, but they returned at 200 because they lost a leg above the knee. It takes more time and effort than one would think to get used to that radical change in personal weight and learn to account for the imbalance it creates. Where a man once managed three muscle-ups, now he can do seven because he has less weight to move.

“It can actually be an ego booster,” Bates says, chuckling. “After a while, we incorporate kipping to get faster and stronger. Ring dips are great because if you fail, you’re not far from the ground and can land on your feet, which is better than falling from a pull-up or muscle-up.”

Former Marine Jake Hill lost his left leg below the knee in Afghanistan in 2010 and then suffered a traumatic brain injury that left his right side paralyzed and landed him at Walter Reed for 18 months. “Physical therapy is worthless,” Hill says. “It did nothing for me, and I wanted to do more and knew the only person who can make you get better is you. So I heard about CrossFit and went to see it and was very scared the first time. I realized I couldn’t do what these guys were doing, but at the same time, I wanted to.”

Hill’s right arm was very weak and his shoulder would pop out of its socket, but through CrossFit and working with Sturm and Bates, he recovered more than was possible by simply following the Army’s physical-therapy regimen. CF Walter Reed forced him to use his right arm and focus on lower weights and higher reps, which proved pivotal in his recovery. Deadlifts and squats strengthened his remaining leg, but there was one aspect that recuperated his entire body and mind more than anything else.

“I like to win,” Hill says. “CrossFit has a huge competitive aspect, and being first has always been in my nature. When we’re working out together, it’s a competition to be first, and that’s really helpful to me. The absolute worst thing is when people clap for me when I’m last. That stings.”

Sturm agrees that the camaraderie is critical. “These guys need to be active, and that’s what most people don’t realize,” he says. “When they see someone who’s willing to work with them and do the things they did before, there’s an excitement there and they want to get going again. Their attitude becomes more along the lines of ‘This is fun. I’m not sitting in a PT room working on a hand bike. I’m doing the things I didn’t know I could do again.’”

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The armed forces are staffed with alpha males and females who are used to being taken past their breaking point to get stronger. These athletes have lived for long periods at a high level of preparedness and stagnate without it. They need a cliff to scale and buddies to look out for during the climb. They need just as much mental recuperation as physical. They need that feeling of pushing someone and being pushed, and as everyone at CrossFit Walter Reed agrees, regular physical training just doesn’t provide it.

You can’t get any of that in a regular gym. This is why CrossFit has been more therapeutic for these wounded warriors than any other form of exercise. CrossFit unlocks the shackles of injury to let these men and women be more than they thought they could be and provides them with an environment they thrive in, one rife with the camaraderie of a military unit. CrossFit, like the military, is a community in which you are your brother’s keeper and vice versa.

The hospital at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center may treat the injury, but CrossFit Walter Reed eliminates the sense of injury.

Photography by Peter Leuders