ARLINGTON, Va. — Sometimes when a Soldier gets injured, the toughest thing is to get back into living life. And it can be particularly intimidating when it comes to trying out sports again.
But an adaptive tennis program at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Soldier Recovery Unit in Bethesda, Maryland, aims to overcome that obstacle with an approach customized for the Soldier's comfort level.
For two hours each Monday, a group of Soldiers gather at a tennis court in nearby Gaithersburg to learn the basics of tennis and eventually improve their skills in the sport. It's been a huge boost for the Soldiers who have participated.
Brett Thomas, an adaptive reconditioning support specialist at the Walter Reed SRU, said that when Soldiers join the unit, they'll see a physical therapist who clears them for certain activities. Soldiers generally engaged in three physical activities and two recreational activities per week, and adaptive tennis is one of the newer offerings.
The program takes place outside during the warmer months, and indoors during the winter.
"Anyone cleared by a physical therapist and is interested can come with us: we provide transportation," Thomas said. "We do different games and doubles matches as well."
Currently, the program has robust participation with 10 people at any given time. They'll get together on Mondays to warm up, go through some drills, and practice tennis skills like serving, forehand, backhand, and anything else the instructor comes up with that day.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the groups are taking precautions such as maintaining social distancing during lessons with a maximum of four players on each court. All equipment is sanitized and most players drive themselves, although four people are allowed per van for those that need transportation and masks are required.
Soldiers at the SRU have enthusiastically embraced the program, often getting others involved unprompted.
"I know a lot of the Soldiers that come to it, they oftentimes will recruit their roommates or someone else they know into the program," Thomas said. "They'll say, 'hey, you should come to tennis, it's a lot of fun.' That's how we've gotten our numbers up. They'll almost do the recruiting for us."
Karl Lee, who coaches the program at the Walter Reed SRU, said it began in 2017 as a way to help veterans struggling with disability get back into being an active participant in society.
"We use tennis as a roadmap or a means to gain a sense of identity and a sense of belonging," Lee said. "The wife of one of our players told me that what happens to a lot of these guys is they tend to just become self-isolated and just sit and stew. There's a feeling of poor self-worth, you feel like you failed, like you're no longer a whole person. Basically, I wanted to give them a way back."
Lee helps them train in all aspects of tennis each Monday. He works with their disability to find a way of playing that is comfortable for them.
"What we try to do is say, 'hey, show me what you can do, what you can't do, what have you done before, here's how you can alter it,'" Lee said. "I'll use things like instability balls or elastic cords or a weighted bat — whatever we need to do to train the physics and the biomechanics behind it."
Spc. Jacob Muncey — a Soldier who has been going through the adaptive reconditioning program at Walter Reed ever since he broke his femur while playing basketball with his unit in Kuwait in February — had never played tennis before deciding to give the program a try. Pretty soon, he was hooked.
"The first time, it was a blast," he said. "I fell in love with the game since then. I went out and bought my own racquet, and started doing events with the adaptive reconditioning team."
Muncey, a native of Muncie, Ind., plans to return to his home state hopefully in December following his physical therapy and get into competitive tennis.
"I was telling my wife a couple weeks ago that I'd look into a tennis league when we get home, because I love the game," he said.
The Army Warrior Care and Transition Program is now the Army Recovery Care Program. Although the name has changed, the mission remains the same: to provide quality complex case management to the Army's wounded, ill and injured Soldiers.