ARLINGTON, Va. — Few understand the struggle of a Soldier beset by an injury or illness. Ripped from the military world they knew, they face an uncertain future. These Soldiers often wonder where to turn to for support and guidance.
And that’s where adaptive recovery comes in.
There are 14 Soldier Recovery Units (SRUs) spread across the nation. They serve as the new home of those Soldiers who have complex medical conditions and must recover before returning to service or preparing for a new life in the civilian world.
A big part of what these SRUs offer are adaptive recovery programs that work directly with Soldiers to refocus their lives.
“Adaptive recovery is key because it focuses on sports, moderate intensity activities, and therapeutic activities,” Amanda Miller, Adaptive Reconditioning Branch Chief at the Army Recovery Care Program, said. “That is to help Soldiers recover and heal, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.”
Every Soldier has a different journey when they come through an SRU. Their injuries may be physical or psychological — or, in some cases, a combination of the two.
Either way, Soldiers need their own individual recovery plans, which is what the AR program focuses on.
“It depends on the condition they are currently in, what their goals are, and if they are planning to go to veteran status or return to duty,” Miller said.
Physical Therapists Drive the Experience
The AR staff includes a variety of team members, each with their own specific role. The physical therapist serves as the program lead, and they are responsible for developing programming for the Soldier, as well as conducting physical evaluations and reevaluations every 120 days on each Soldier.
A PT assistant provides support to the physical therapist. They do a lot of the work to help run AR programs.
Amber Strittmatter, PT assistant at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center SRU in Maryland, said she is responsible for running the group exercise classes, such as the cardiovascular class or strength-training class. She also runs less-intense classes like stretching and yoga, or even non-physical classes like playing games or community reintegration.
“[Soldiers] come into this environment where they don't know anybody and have been diagnosed with illnesses that are life-changing to them,” she continued. “Adaptive reconditioning and adaptive sports are a way to meet other service members and also reintegrate with society."
Sgt. 1st Class Cheryl Mancill, who has spent her time recovering at the Fort Hood SRU in Texas after a motorcycle accident left her in a wheelchair, knows first-hand the importance of physical therapists and the personal touch they provide. Her PT, Corina Fleeman, introduced her to aquatics. One day, after Mancill was frustrated in the shallow end, Fleeman encouraged her to go deeper.
"It was like I was walking on the moon," Mancill said. "There was no impact. I could move in ways in the water that I couldn't move otherwise. It was a night and day difference. My range of motion in the water is so much better than out of the water. It was like gravity had no bearing."
She is highly appreciative of the patient work Fleeman and others like her do.
"They are amazing," she said. "We all have something that needs [fixing], so we're all treated accordingly [at the SRU]. It's not just, 'hey, you're just another Soldier.' And I love it. If I don't know what I need, they try to figure it out."
The Power of Recreational Therapy
There are also recreational therapists who help Soldiers get back on their feet at the SRU, and Jenn Trantin is one of them. At Walter Reed, she schedules, coordinates and implements some of the adaptive reconditioning activities and events. She's the point of contact on archery, hiking, horseback riding, rowing, power-lifting, and many of the DoD Warrior Games sports. She'll even lead non-sports activities like tabletop games and art classes.
Trantin has seen the power of recreational therapy in the lives of Soldiers first-hand. She was struck by one Soldier who had a lower body amputation and "was in a dark place after his procedure," she said.
"He really didn't think he would be able to do anything ever again or be able to enjoy life," she said. "He kept saying, 'I can't do that, I don't have a leg.' But as a recreational therapist, you can't tell me you can't do something. Because my whole job is to provide those adaptations to help people see the light."
Gradually, the Soldier started participating in whitewater rafting trips, a walking group and even archery. And as he opened himself up, everything changed for him, Trantin said.
"It brought such a new light into his life — he even said so himself," she said. "Now he knew the things he could do to live life to the fullest."
Helping Soldiers Achieve Their Goals
The goals of an individual Soldier have a huge impact on what the AR program looks like for that Soldier. If the goal is to rehabilitate physically after an injury, the program will include physical training and possible adaptive sports based on the Soldier’s interests. If it’s a behavioral health condition, the program might focus on socializing through activities like board games or animal therapy.
There are big events Soldiers can work toward as part of their recovery process that helps motivate them to strive for greatness. The annual Army Trials competition allows Soldiers to vie for a spot on Team Army to compete in the annual DoD Warrior Games, a paralympic-like competition between the sister services. There’s also a Battle of the Bands competition in the fall where SRUs compete against each other.
Dr. Katherine Bentley, Adaptive Reconditioning Action Officer at ARCP and a former physical therapist at an SRU, said the unique challenge SRUs face is that they see a wide breadth of diagnoses compared to a traditional clinical environment. And that's where the "adaptive" part of AR comes in — they must tailor customized programs to help each Soldier achieve their unique goals.
"It used to be one-size-fits-all," Bentley said. "But now we've really tried to make our program very specific to Soldiers. The PT works with each Soldier to figure out their goals and how we can help them achieve their goals."
So one Soldier could be in great physical shape and just needs some work to return to duty, while another is looking to retire from the military and start a new life as a civilian. Whatever the situation, the SRU staff will find some kind of program to help that Soldier.
"People just think of adaptive sports when they think of adaptive recovery, but we like people to think of reconditioning as part of it," she said.
She recalled a diet and wellness program at one SRU years ago. A Soldier was there for gastrointestinal issues, and they worked with him to educate him on what exercises would work best for him besides the typical push-ups or running — which is all a lot of Soldiers know.
"It's not just sports, but a lifelong fitness type of thing," Bentley said. "We also worked with him on his diet and how to cook and eat healthy. We had a competition where all the Soldiers in the group got to utilize their skills to cook a healthy meal, and they competed in teams."
Refocusing a Soldier’s Mind
Col. Lyle Ourada left the Walter Reed SRU late last year, almost two years after coming there in February 2020 to deal with a disease in his lungs. It's easy for a Soldier to feel out of sorts at the beginning.
"All these thoughts are going through your head," Ourada said. "You're kind of like, 'OK, what do I do? What am I supposed to do?'"
So he jumped into adaptive sports and exercise. He participated in tennis, archery, and air rifle, but really got hooked on rowing to the point that he hopes to compete in the DoD Warrior Games this fall.
Ourada credits adaptive recovery with helping him on his journey.
"It was an opportunity to put medical stuff behind me — to not have to worry about it," he said, noting that he was impressed with how far the staff goes to help Soldiers, even making a special leg for one Soldier so she could snowboard.
"For the Soldiers that are coming here, whether they're missing a limb or have some other concern, they can still show you how to do a sport," he said.