FORT CARSON, Colo. — Sgt. 1st Class Renee Arias has had a tough year.
First, her mom suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with a second bout of cancer, then her marriage collapsed and finally, her finances were wrecked following a disputed home sale.
She’s faced some of life’s most difficult problems in the span of just a few months, yet she says a vital coping tactic has helped her alleviate much of the stress that many servicemembers endure throughout the span of their careers. That tactic – pursuing a personal goal – has helped her cope through a hellacious storm. And, it could perhaps be one solution for many Soldiers who find themselves in dire circumstances.
Recently, Army leaders began focusing on reducing suicide rates among their ranks. Servicemembers aren’t robots. They experience the same anxiety, loneliness and depression as everyone else, only theirs is often compounded by a variety of factors. Soldiers’ work-life balance, for instance, often becomes skewed thanks to year-long overseas deployments, temporary-duty assignments at far away locations and training events that keep them in austere environments for weeks at a time.
Arias, a 13-year Army veteran and an instructor at Fort Carson’s Basic Leader Course Academy (BLC), has more than average experience with these types of military-life events. It’s one reason she was selected to mentor junior enlisted Soldiers at BLC.
Nevertheless, she says the past year has been particularly difficult, given her circumstances, and there was only one way she managed to maneuver through it – envisioning herself competing on stage at a top-level body building event.
“I’ve never competed before,” she said. “It has been a goal of mine for years, but something had always managed to curtail my efforts.”
Her first effort occurred in 2020, when she hired a coach, then trained and prepared for pretty much an entire year. A few weeks before the event, however, the COVID-19 pandemic placed a hold on most group gatherings and organizers were forced to cancel the event. Her second attempt occurred earlier this year, when she trained for an event in Indiana. Yet again though, stressful situations and unforeseen circumstances foiled her plans.
Undeterred, Arias dove back into training this past July, when she began preparing for an Oct. 1 event in Denver. This time, however, she decided to also visit the Army Wellness Center (AWC) during her ramp up to the competition.
“I remembered how much the staff at AWC helped me at my last duty station and so I walked into the Fort Carson center one day this past summer,” she said. “And, that decision proved pivotal for my success at the Denver body building event because, really, you can only learn so much from looks and feel. Their (AWC’s) body-fat composition, oxygen-uptake and metabolism-rate tests give a person very specific numbers that don’t lie. So, that data provided a much better judge of my training and nutritional activities leading up to the competition. Specifically, it provided an indicator that I needed to slow down on cardio activity. I made had to make adjustments and I changed my training sessions.”
Ultimately, at the end of the day Oct. 1, 2022, Arias earned first place in the Wellness category for her height class at the NPC Colorado Muscle Classic, a high-level regional body building event. Earning the win also helped her qualify for higher-level national events, paving the way for a future in the sport. The outcome was a surprise to her, her coach, family and friends, mostly because this was the first time she had ever competed in a body building event.
“Being on stage was exciting and earning the win was great,” she said. “But really, it wasn’t about winning. It was about the journey I made, about finally getting to that stage. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel nervous. I just had this sense of accomplishment that I made it through everything that my life was throwing at me. Through all these years I kept telling myself that I was going to do this. And, I finally did it.”
More importantly, she noted, her success is indicative of the type of assistance a wellness center like AWC can provide for everyday servicemembers.
“The biggest thing is knowing that education about nutrition and fitness can actually help people alleviate depression and anxiety,” she said. “I know because I’ve experienced it. For me, going to the gym is my stress reliever. It releases endorphins and helps me be more productive.”
Glen Williams, director at Fort Carson’s AWC, explained that the wellness center, like many at military wellness centers at installations around the country, not only provides fitness testing, but also teaches classes on things like raising one’s metabolism, stress reduction, proper nutrition and healthy sleep habits.
“We see many soldiers who will eat fast food for breakfast and lunch and then wash that down with a soda or energy drinks,” he said. “They don’t drink any water. They’ll smoke a cigarette and then snack on junk food for the rest of the day. If they do have dinner, it will be pizza or something similar.”
When faced with clients like these, wellness center staff will attempt to change a servicemember’s mindset and build awareness about the damage such a lifestyle can do to a person’s mental and physical well-being.
“Once they get that awareness, then that’s half the battle,” Williams said. “And, it aligns with the Army’s approach of holistic soldier fitness, which includes emotional, spiritual and physical health. “We want to teach people how to manage stress and care for themselves.”
For Arias, her immediate plans include competing at a national body building event later this year and continuing to mentor young Soldiers through the BLC.
“If we can start educating them now, when they’re young, teaching them how to train and eat, then maybe they won’t have severe health problems in their 50s and 60s,” she said. “They’ll have better longevity and be happier people.”