Story by Christine Aurigema
Army Recovery Care Program
ARLINGTON, Va., -- The COVID-19 pandemic has canceled so many activities, but it has also propelled people to take initiative and be resourceful. That’s precisely what occurred when two United Service Organization, Inc. (USO) groups were canceled, prompting Spc. Athena McDowall, a Soldier assigned to the Soldier Recovery Unit at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to lead the groups virtually so that Soldiers could still participate. The Army Recovery Care Program takes a closer look at this story in the fourth article in the Adapting to COVID-19 Series.
Adaptive Reconditioning Support Specialist Philip Rackham said that Soldiers assigned to the SRU at Fort Belvoir consistently participated in the Bible Study and Spiritual Diversity groups until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the USO to close. In the former, attendees study the Bible. Per Recreational Therapist Joby Lefever, while in the latter they experience their spirituality through a variety of topics and discussions. McDowall explained that they reflect on different aspects of life and offer support.
“Bible Study and Spiritual Diversity have been important elements to the recovery of Spc. McDowall and many other Soldiers,” Rackham said.
McDowall worked with Lefever to hold the group sessions virtually via the SRU’s adaptive reconditioning program, which helps Soldiers return to active lifestyles. It’s a part of ARCP, which supports wounded, ill and injured Soldiers, their families and caregivers as they transition back to the force or to veteran status.
They started the Bible Study group and added the Spiritual Diversity group when Soldiers requested it. Lefever explained that they co-lead weekly sessions that usually welcome three to four participants. McDowall selects the topics, writes lessons and facilitates discussions.
“All of the credit goes to Spc. McDowall; I’m just the portal,” Lefever said.
When writing lessons, McDowall draws inspiration from her church at home. She also incorporates topics from everyday life because she’s found that they create the most engaging conversations. Past topics range from song lyrics, to the COVID-19 pandemic, to finding joy in the little things and how materialism interferes with their relationships with God.
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a discussion topic, it still impacts sessions. The virtual groups are very small, which McDowall enjoys, but she hopes they will grow. She recalled that Soldiers sometimes stayed after in-person sessions to talk or eat, but that isn’t possible now.
“It’s still a wonderful thing to be able to do,” McDowall said. The sessions allow Soldiers to vent within a close group and share a sense of community and belonging, she added.
Sgt. 1st Class Berdi Cekic has served for 37 years as a drill instructor, observer and trainer for drivers of mine-resistant, ambush protected, armored vehicles (MRAP). The Bible Study and Spiritual Diversity groups have been part of his recovery since he was assigned to the SRU. He said that when he first arrived at Fort Belvoir, the sessions helped him cope with being away from home because the group cares about each other and studies the Bible.
“It was really helpful for me,” Cekic said.
He tries to attend as often as he can because the groups have been beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s good to join in and to encourage others too,” Cekic said.
The groups also have been an important part of McDowall’s recovery process. Lefever stated that leading a group has such a positive impact on a Soldier’s recovery. Moreover, McDowall enjoys leading the sessions and was surprised when so many people thanked her for what she was doing.
“I’m just thankful that they are able to come and enjoy the experience as well,” she said.
McDowall found that the groups have helped her form friendships and bonds with other Soldiers. They also help her refocus and gain a more positive mindset.
“While these groups do not have a direct physical impact on my health, I believe that having a more healthy mental state of mind really helps to make you feel more energized physically, which allows me to feel more focused and have the ability to stay productive throughout the week,” McDowall said.
Soldiers have told Lefever that groups like these may not have been high on their priority list before they arrived at the SRU, but that they have strengthened their faith. In fact, some Soldiers who have transitioned and are no longer at the SRU are still connected to and interact with the groups, she said.
“I think that in the time of coronavirus or COVID-19, and with everything going on, it was a beacon of hope for the Soldiers, especially those that attended.” Lefever said. “It was a little sense of community.”
Adaptive reconditioning programs provide activities and sports that help wounded, ill and injured Soldiers to optimize their wellbeing, achieve their goals and return to active lifestyles. Through these virtual programs, Soldiers can continue classes and programs and try new ones. During the COVID-19 pandemic, an average of 350 AR activities are offered at 14 SRUs across the country every week.
Visit this link to view the first article in the ARCP Adapting to COVID-19 Series: https://www.dvidshub.net/news/368774/adaptive-reconditioning-programs-adapt-stay-home-orders
Visit this link to learn how Soldiers in the Army Recovery Care Program are experiencing Bollywood Dancing and meditation virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.https://www.dvidshub.net/news/373762/virtual-programs-open-doors-arcp-soldiers-following-stay-home-orders