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Helping Veterans ‘Work Out’ Their Issues

Marine Corps Veterans Raymond Navarro (left) and Greg Becker (right) are fitness facilitators and coaches at the Veterans Center for Recreation and Education (VCRE) where they help their fellow Veterans enhance their physical and mental health through exercise.
Marine Corps Veterans Raymond Navarro (left) and Greg Becker (right) are fitness facilitators and coaches at the Veterans Center for Recreation and Education (VCRE) where they help their fellow Veterans enhance their physical and mental health through exercise.

Working out – particularly as part of a group – can be a healing experience, says Marine Corps Veteran Raymond Navarro, fitness facilitator and coach at the Veterans Center for Recreation and Education (VCRE) on the West LA VA Campus.

“We kind of work things out while we’re working out,” Navarro said of the Veterans he trains.

The expansive outdoor workout pavilion at VCRE, where Navarro works, is managed by Brentwood School, an independent K-12 institution that leases 22 acres of the West LA VA campus. One-on-one coaching is available from Navarro and other trainers to help Veterans recover from injury or meet their fitness goals.

Giving Back to Veterans

Any Veteran with a Veteran Health Administration (VHA) Eligibility Identification Card can register online for a free membership to VCRE. They can access the facilities through the West LA VA campus or through the Brentwood School main gate on South Barrington Place. Both gates require Veteran identification (VA ID or DD214). Veterans can also rent sports equipment at the check-in area near the pavilion.

The cumulative total Veteran membership at VCRE is 5,206 Veterans who have signed up since inception of the 2016 lease agreement. Last year there was an average of 467 Veteran visits per month.

Navarro is in the workout pavilion three days a week to train Veterans. He talks passionately about the many mental and physical health benefits of exercise, and of the camaraderie experienced by Veterans who come together in the gym.

“We’re able to just be Veterans together, working out, making our bodies stronger,” Navarro said.

Army Veteran Matt Hill started working out at VCRE during his own time in treatment at VA.

“It’s been a game changer for me,” Hill said. “I think the workout area, in particular, is huge because a lot of the Veterans come here for mental health issues and your overall health has a huge impact on that. VCRE plays a big part in your recovery.”

Finding Healing Through VA

Navarro understands what many of the Veterans who come to VCRE are going through.

From 2001 to 2009 he was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he worked as a radio operator. Upon his return to civilian life, he suffered from depression and fell into some bad habits.

He ended up spending six months at the Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program, more commonly referred to as the DOM, which is located at the West LA VA. While there, he began utilizing the available recreational resources, including those at VCRE. That’s when he met Gennifer Yoshimaru, Brentwood School’s assistant head of school. The two started talking and she ultimately asked him to join the VCRE staff.

“As a Veteran who is struggling, to work out with Ray, you now have a role model who has walked your path and can truly relate and empathize,” Yoshimaru said of her decision to add Navarro to the team.

Hill describes Navarro as “very open, very kind, very knowledgeable.”

Navarro will also be facilitating a yoga class for residents at the DOM in the near future.

Helping Others Through Personal Experience

Navarro and his colleagues, Paul Radenberg and Greg Becker, supervise and assist Veterans in the workout pavilion.

Becker is also a Veteran and served in the Marine Corps. “They love it,” he said of the Veterans who come to VCRE. “I think it’s a great help, mentally and physically.”

Navarro agrees and sees their roles at VCRE as guiding Veterans towards health and healing.

In addition to working at VCRE, Navarro is a full-time graduate student, studying to be a clinical psychologist. He plans to one day work for the VA and give back to his community by creating a hybrid, accessible physical fitness program that focuses on intention and mindfulness to facilitate healing.

“Hopefully through being a licensed therapist I can apply my journey, my own experience,” Navarro said.

Research touts the benefits of exercise for both physical and mental health. A 2019 study found that aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. In 2021, researchers at Buffalo VA Medical Center and the University of Buffalo found that a high intensity interval training program can enhance quality of life in older Veterans.

“Having exercise as a positive outlet while they [Veterans] are working through their sobriety or other mental and emotional health concerns … it’s a type of lifeline,” Yoshimaru said.

Brentwood School’s Commitment to Veterans

Brentwood School offers more than just recreation for Veterans. They operate a local shuttle so Veterans can get to medical appointments or shop in Westwood Village. Scholarships for the children of Veterans are also available, as are workshops, adult education classes (including computer literacy and job skills) and free tickets to special events and seminars.

Brentwood School has also stepped in when Veterans have immediate needs, including providing 20 shelter units to the Care, Treatment and Rehabilitative Services (CTRS) program for Veterans experiencing homelessness, supplying IT support to five computer labs on the West LA VA campus, volunteering at Stand Downs (events that connect Veterans to service providers and VA programs), and hiring Veterans for on-campus jobs. VA is actively pursuing opportunities to continuously improve the extent to which its relationship with Brentwood School benefits Veterans and their families.

As part of Brentwood School’s lease agreement Veterans have free access to the on-site VCRE resources, such as weights, cardio equipment, and everything else a fitness fanatic might need. They can also use the heated swimming pool, tennis courts, baseball diamond, a stadium field, and track.  The Veteran access hours change seasonally and are updated on Brentwood School’s website. Exclusive access for Veterans happens seven days per week for an average of 8.8 hours per day.

“The VCRE mission is very much about being responsive to and considerate of the range of needs that are unique to Veterans,” Yoshimaru said.

Hill wants his fellow Veterans to know that VCRE (and the workout pavilion in particular) is accessible to them. “A lot of the guys are either intimidated or they don’t know where to start. So, if I could pass anything on it’d be that there are people out there that can help you with the goals you want to achieve.”

Navarro sees his efforts at VCRE as part of his larger mission. He looks forward to a future where he can help even more Veterans and those who come from a similar background. “It’s not just a job, it’s the work that is calling to me.”

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