NONPROFIT MEETS THE CHANGING NEEDS OF TODAY’S WOUNDED, ILL AND INJURED WARRIORS
In 2009, when U.S. Marine Corps veteran Elijah Sacra co-founded Warrior Wellness Solutions, the wounded, ill and injured military service members and veterans with whom the nonprofit organization worked were usually visibly wounded.
“They were Purple Heart recipients, shot by snipers or blown up by IEDs, often missing limbs and suffering visible effects of traumatic brain injury,” said Sacra, executive director of Warrior Wellness Solutions.
The nonprofit’s mission is to bring hope and healing to hundreds of such warriors through a combination of holistic nutrition, functional movement exercise and mindful yoga therapy delivered by way of both one-on-one coaching and group workshops at the USMC's Wounded Warrior Battalion East at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) in Bethesda, Md.
Over recent years, though, as military activity in the Middle East has throttled back, so has the number of warriors returning stateside with obvious injuries resulting from incidents of war. Many of today’s warriors are coming home with what the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense term, “unexplained illness.”
“Basically, they’re sick all the time, and mainstream medical tests aren’t pinpointing the root cause,” Sacra said. “Through functional medicine and more personalized testing, we are seeing a high number of tests results coming back identifying heavy-metal toxicity from exposure to mercury, lead or chemicals, as well as digestive system health issues stemming from chronic stress, poor diet, sleep deprivation, over-medication and unchecked chronic inflammation.”
Many warriors simultaneously suffer chronic joint pain from inflammation caused by medication or hours spent sitting in military vehicles, he continued. Some even have herniated discs from carrying heavy packs through the mountains of Afghanistan, as well as intestinal parasites from drinking the water in other countries.
One health problem hasn’t changed, he said. Today’s warriors still return home with traumatic brain injuries; the difference lies in how they sustained them. Just as the NFL is learning that football players don’t require concussions for brain injury, so is the DOD discovering that warriors don’t require IED explosions for brain injury. Repeated use of a shoulder-fired missile or the repetitive practice of explosive breaching of doors and walls can have the same effect.
“The new traumatic brain injury isn’t caused by the enemy,” Sacra said. “It’s caused by doing your job.”
Although the VA is spending billions of dollars on prescription medications to treat the myriad health issues of today’s service members and veterans, “the number one most effective treatment for these conditions is cellular regeneration through nutrition,” Sacra said. “Over-medication causes its own set of problems, including the side effect of killing the good bacteria in the digestive tract, which is essential for proper digestion. Dozens of diseases have been linked to bacterial imbalance, including depression and cancer.”
Warrior Wellness Solutions has always advocated clean eating, juicing and the use of superfoods, such as spinach, kale and chia seeds, for their positive, healing effects on body, mind and spirit. To set the stage for cellular regeneration, Warrior Wellness Solutions co-founder and operations director Clarissa Kussin, a certified detoxification specialist, chef and integrative nutrition health coach, has added herbs, botanicals and tonics that focus on a deeper, more refined and thorough detoxification of the body’s systems.
Sacra, an exercise science professional and integrative nutrition health coach, uses rehabilitative exercise, yoga techniques and Foundation Training, a holistic movement practice designed to restore posture by strengthening the posterior chain and important core muscles to relieve most chronic pain stemming from joint and spinal compression. Spinal compression also compresses nerves that interconnect major organs to the brain as part of the involuntary nervous system, so relieving it can have the added effect of improving heart rate, breathing and digestion.
Do their techniques, which some might consider “New Age,” actually work?
“Absolutely,” Sacra maintains. The organization’s success stories are many. They include retired Sgt. Chris Hancock, who lost both legs in Afghanistan and later enrolled in the Holistic Nutrition School at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition; retired Cpl. Patrick Matisi, who was shot through the arm and chest by a Taliban sniper and now works for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; and Cpl. Michael Politowicz, who was blown up by an IED that shattered his forearm with shrapnel and caused a traumatic brain injury, and who is among the 1 percent of Marines to leave the Wounded Warrior Battalion and return to active duty with Marine Corps Special Operations. All three of these Purple Heart-awarded Marines have paid it forward by sharing their stories at Warrior Wellness Solutions workshops to inspire others.
Warrior Wellness Solutions has also worked with Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel, who can’t be identified or profiled for security reasons, but the nonprofit’s successes in restoring SOF service members to health and vitality resulted in Sacra and Kussin’s recent appointment to the SOF Health Initiatives Medical Advisory Board.
“We’ve all heard about the 22 suicides a day, and a number of organizations have done a lot to raise awareness,” Sacra said, referring to a 2013 VA research study showing that an average of 22 U.S. military veterans committed suicide each day between 1999 and 2010. “But awareness has been raised, and now it’s time for a solution. This is a solution that can make these warriors feel good again, both physically and mentally, so that they can live a life of purpose.”
WORKSHOP OFFERS WOUNDED WARRIORS HEALTH
Picture today’s “typical” U.S. military serviceman. He’s in his early twenties. If he’s lucky, his mother and Uncle Sam have cooked for him his entire life, relieving him of the need to learn how. When left to his own devices, he gets by on a steady stream of delivery pizza and energy drinks. Not exactly the diet of champions. But he is a warrior, and his body is young, strong and resilient. His daily, boot-camp-inspired regimen of running, push-ups and pull-ups keeps him lean and fit.
Now picture him again — returning from the battlefield, suffering from a traumatic brain injury, loss of limbs, gunshot wounds or post-traumatic stress.
With these injuries, the standard exercise fare of running, push-ups and pull-ups may no longer be an option for keeping this warrior in the fight. According to a recent survey of 13,956 wounded, ill or injured military service members and veterans , this warrior is statistically likely to be overweight or obese, experience insomnia, struggle with mental and emotional stress and be taking a multitude of prescribed medications.
This is the reality for many wounded, ill and injured warriors the non-profit organization Warrior Wellness Solutions (WWS) serves at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
It’s also the reality for many service members, veteran patients and their families at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) in Bethesda, Md., who attended the first WWS workshop on holistic nutrition at WRNMMC. Attendees will also receive a post-workshop assessment, coaching and sustained contact — all thanks to a donations from workshop sponsors.
Warrior Wellness Solutions' program includes adaptive functional movement exercise and mindful yoga therapy, starts with nutrition. The focus is on delivering nutrient density through juicing, smoothies and “super foods,” such as spinach, kale and chia seeds, to help support tissue and injury repair, reduce body fat, increase energy and enhance overall mental and physical health, according to Elijah Sacra, WWS executive director.
Introducing Holistic Nutrition
“Holistic nutrition was a tough sell to the guys at Camp Lejeune at first,” Sacra admitted. “There’s a huge link between food and mood, but to a bunch of young Marines, it sounds like some kind of new-age craziness. Then again, when you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, you get to the point where you’re willing to try anything.”
A more helpful approach, they found, was to tell wounded Marines that Mayan and Aztec warriors consumed chia seeds before going into battle, Sacra said, and that the Wall Street Journal reported that Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice supplements his diet with chia seeds for energy and digestive health. And, yes, these are the same seeds used to grow Chia Pets.
And so, a handful of skeptical young Marines at Camp Lejeune did, indeed, decide to try the Warrior Wellness Program a few years ago, and the change it made in them, both physically and mentally, ultimately led to the program becoming adjunct training for the base’s Wounded Warrior Battalion, Sacra said.
“We had guys who lost 40 pounds and went from being on 10 to 15 prescription meds to two, one or even none, and a few, like Cpl. Michael Politowicz, who returned to active duty.”
Today, some of those young Marines whose lives were transformed are now “paying it forward” by helping to spread the healing and empowerment message to their fellow wounded warriors. One example is Sgt. Chris Hancock, who took part in the Warrior Wellness Program two years ago, after losing both legs in Afghanistan. He is now enrolled in the Holistic Nutrition School at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition on a scholarship awarded by WWS.
Sacra, himself, is a Marine veteran and personal trainer who freely admits he “never drank water and never met a dark green, leafy vegetable I liked,” until he met WWS co-founder Clarissa Kussin, director of operations and nutrition services. A certified holistic health counselor and natural foods chef who owned a juice bar and café, Kussin is the genius behind the WWS food and nutrition program. She’s also the one who ensures that WWS recipes produce smoothies that actually taste good, “not like they were made from lawn clippings,” Sacra said.
“You have to address nutrition if you want to get someone who’s overweight, depressed and physically impaired moving in order to be able to progress to exercise and yoga,” he said. “That’s why we’re so grateful to our sponsors for enabling us to bring this first open workshop to Walter Reed, where you find some of the most severely wounded warriors in the nation.”
WOUNDED WARRIORS SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT HOLISTIC NUTRITION HEALTH BENEFITS
When Elijah Sacra and Clarissa Kussin, co-founders of the non-profit Warrior Wellness Solutions (WWS), headed to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) in Bethesda, Md., they thought they knew what would happen when they arrived.
They’d planned to conduct a small, informal, “Delicious Foods Daily” workshop with 10 members of the U.S. Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Battalion – East, Walter Reed Detachment. They’d been health coaching the group remotely from their headquarters in North Carolina since meeting them at the first, formal, donor sponsored holistic nutrition workshop at WRNMMC
Instead, Sacra and Kussin found a surprise waiting for them. The 10 Marines had told friends and roommates about the changes they’d made in the four months since the first WWS event and invited them to attend the new workshop. Rather than the expected 10 attendees, the workshop had more than 30, including both Marine and U.S. Army personnel.
“My roommate said I had to come because it was amazing,” a female soldier told Sacra.
While the 10 original Marines related their experiences to the rest of the group, sharing how they’d lost weight, gained energy and reduced the number of prescription medications they were taking, Sacra and Kussin scrambled to convert a workshop for 10 into a workshop for 30.
Fortunately, they’d brought along extra help, Sacra said, in the form of retired Marine Cpl. Patrick Matisi and his wife, Sasha Techet.
A WWS success story himself, Matisi was shot through the arm and chest by a Taliban sniper in Afghanistan in 2011 and was on active duty at USMC Wounded Warrior at Camp Lejeune, N.C., when he first encountered WWS. With the help of Warrior Wellness Solutions, Matisi reduced his medications from 15 to three, healed and rehabilitated his body. Now medically retired, he works at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and gives back to fellow wounded warriors by helping with WWS workshops, such as the one at WRNMMC.
With Matisi demonstrating as Sacra and Kussin provided detail, the two-hour workshop encompassed four hands-on stations where all 30 participants could try preparing nutrient-dense foods, including an entrée, juices, smoothies and a pudding made with chia seeds.
WWS recipes focus on “super foods,” such as kale, spinach and chia seeds, to help support tissue and injury repair, reduce body fat, increase energy and enhance overall mental and physical health, Sacra said. Juicer manufacturer Breville donated a juicer for WWS to leave behind after the workshop, so that, in the future, attendees can check it out from their administrative commanding officer for personal use.
“It was awesome to find out that the 10 people we’d been working with had been telling all these other people about the program,” Sacra said, but added that such “evangelism” shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
“When we hold a workshop like the one our donors previously sponsored at Walter Reed, a certain number of people hear what we say and then just go do it on their own. We don’t know about it, and we don’t hear from them until maybe a year later, when they get in touch and tell us we changed their lives,” Sacra said.
“But then again, sometimes we never hear from that person. Instead we hear from someone they told who tried it, too. All of a sudden someone we’ve never had any direct contact with gets in touch and tells us how we’ve changed their life. It’s a ripple effect that you really can’t measure.”
After a holistic nutrition workshop like the one at WRNMMC in June, it’s also typical for five to 10 attendees, who want to try the program but who don’t quite know how to do it on their own, to reach out to WWS for help. The 10 Marines originally invited to the October 24 workshop were such attendees, who received ongoing, long-distance health coaching free of charge, Sacra said.
In addition to the workshop, the health coaching and follow-up workshops were also supported by donors
“It typically cost $1000s per warrior beyond workshop costs to get them what they need. Many of our wounded warriors don’t have great financial resources, so they might need help to buy a juicer and fresh produce or enroll in a local yoga class,” he said, adding that no one at WWS draws a salary. Their work with wounded warriors is provided on a volunteer basis, and there is never a charge to the warriors. “That’s why we’re so grateful to our sponsors for enabling us to continue to do this work.”
Warrior wellness solutions CONTINUES SUPPORT OF HOPE AND HEALING FOR WOUNDED MARINES
If you ask Cpl. Michael Politowicz, he’ll tell you he was born to be a United States Marine. His path to achieving that goal was anything but smooth and staying on track hasn’t exactly been a cake walk, either.
A Detroit native, Politowicz is the grandson of the late Edward Politowicz Sr., a World War II USMC veteran and survivor of four amphibious assaults, including two on Iwo Jima. He recently passed away at age 91.
With his grandfather as his role model, Michael Politowicz enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2000 at age 18, but he didn’t make it very far.
“Halfway through boot camp, I was attacked by fire ants and went into anaphylactic shock,” he said. “The Navy medical board deemed me unfit to continue with training.”
Politowicz returned to Detroit and worked on auto assembly lines and other factories. His goal was to de-sensitize his allergic reaction to fire ants and then re-enlist. But the Marine Corps told the six-foot-three-inch-tall Politowicz he was 60 pounds overweight. Two months later, he came in 20 pounds overweight. The third time he tried, they told him he still had 8 pounds to lose, so he left the recruiter’s office, put on a wet suit and garbage bags, worked out and lost the weight in two hours.
Finally, in 2009, Politowicz was a Marine again. He was older than his drill sergeant, but he successfully completed boot camp and became a combat engineer.
Two years later, he was on foot patrol in Afghanistan when he stepped on a trip wire and an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated only three feet from him. Politowicz was blown up and landed with a forearm shattered by shrapnel and a traumatic brain injury.
That’s how he wound up in the USMC Wounded Warrior Battalion East at Camp Lejeune, N.C., a Purple Heart recipient suffering PTSD and nightmares, back up to 50 pounds overweight and taking 15 prescription medications.
“I was a shut-in. I couldn’t deal with large crowds and had a hard time socially with new people,” he said. “I couldn’t walk my dog or even walk from my house to my car.”
The average person might have given up right there. Then again, the average person facing all the adversity he’d faced probably would have given up on the Marine Corps years before that. But not Politowicz. He was determined to return to active duty.
Politowicz’s wife, Suzi, reached out for help and was referred to Elijah Sacra, a USMC veteran, personal trainer and founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Warrior Wellness Solutions. Sacra, who lived in Maryland at the time, was planning a weekend trip to his fiancée’s home in Durham, N.C., and agreed to bring his fiancée, Clarissa Kussin, to visit Politowicz at Camp Lejeune.
That turned out to be the same weekend Hurricane Irene was headed for the North Carolina coast and Camp Lejeune was evacuated. Instead, Politowicz, Suzi and their dog, Jinx, spent the weekend at the farm owned by Kussin, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, another founder of Warrior Wellness Solutions and Director of Operations for the nonprofit. Together, Sacra and Kussin taught Politowicz and his wife the foundations of their Warrior Wellness Solutions Program, which encompasses nutrition, adaptive functional movement exercise and mindful yoga therapy.
Within three months on the Warrior Wellness Solutions diet, which focuses on holistic nutrition and superfoods such as spinach, kale and chia seeds, Politowicz had reduced his prescription medications from 15 to one. In addition, he had lost so much weight that his company commander at Wounded Warrior Battalion East demanded to know what he’d been doing.
Politowicz told his commanding officer, Antony Andrious, about Warrior Wellness Solutions and said, “You should bring them here.”
His improvement continued by leaps and bounds until finally Andrious called Sacra and invited him to present to the wounded Marines at Camp Lejeune.
The first sponsored Warrior Wellness Solutions workshop at Camp Lejeune was attended by 30 wounded Marines and staff, including the new executive officer of the battalion. In addition, several community partners who have helped to support Warrior Wellness Solutions’ work donated four blenders to be given away at the workshop. The workshop covered nutrition, functional movement, rehabilitative exercise, yoga and mindfulness.
And, of course, Michael Politowicz was there. This time, he not only gave his personal testimonial on the effectiveness of the Warrior Wellness Solutions Program, but also taught an entire session on superfoods as they relate to physical performance and workouts.
Politowicz knows something about physical performance and workouts, because he’s a competitive bicyclist, triathlete and powerlifter. He’s also won a gold medal in shot put and a bronze in discus at the Marine Corps Warrior Games Trials and will be participating again in June.
Politowicz is part of the 1 percent of Marines who has left the Wounded Warrior Battalion and returned to active duty, just as he set out to do years before. He now works in the Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC), supporting Marines who are training for special operations.
“That never would have been possible without Warrior Wellness Solutions,” Politowicz told participants in workshop. “I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today.”