WASHINGTON — The Army and a non-profit have joined forces to find a new way for soldiers and veterans to shed pounds while reclaiming their lives and careers. The new program, the Winded Warrior Project, will launch service-wide and through VA hospitals around the country in September, after six months of successful trials in the National Capital Region.
"I actually got an administrative separation, because I couldn't meet the weight standards," said Winded Warrior director Mitch Mesa. "The other guys called me 'Mesa Grande."
"It really hurt."
The organization takes troops who are in danger due to weight standards, or veterans who were forced to separate for being overweight, and helps them get their lives back. A comprehensive PT, coaching, and counseling regimen is given free of charge to all participants. Troops currently in line for separation are given a 60 day hold to show substantial progress. “Or," Mesa added, "if they’ve basically given up, then we just give them a Rascal Scooter and wish them luck.”
Thanks to discretionary funding in the Veterans Affairs budget, which had a surplus after nearly one-third of their waitlist died without receiving treatment, Mesa's dream of helping soldiers slim down found the support it needed in the Chief of Staff's office.
"This country has an obesity problem, as does the Army," according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno. "When I saw a meme last fall with a very heavy soldier and the caption 'Go Army! Eat Navy!' I knew we had to act."
Mesa says the program goes beyond mandatory running.
"We monitor their Instagram accounts, and any time they post a food image, we comment with calorie and fat content estimates," he said. "If necessary, we use geo-locating based on the meta-data in the photo, and contact the kitchen to change their order to a salad."
The food monitoring is followed up by frequent weigh-ins, motivational texting, and zumba. The group also helps with smoking cessation.
“For a while, we used hot fitness models as motivational trainers, and the results were amazing," according to Mesa. "But they are suing us now. Though, honestly, we probably should have seen that coming."
"'Sexual harassment,'” he mouthed, making air quotes with his fingers.
Mesa notes that over the first six months, Winded Warrior has helped hundreds of soldiers and veterans "see their junk in the shower again."
“I'm even thinking of reenlisting, now that I make the weight again," he said.
Mesa says that a pending lawsuit for trademark infringement filed by the Wounded Warrior Project will not deter them.
"I think they'll be reasonable," Mesa said.