by BETH PETERS, Co-Founder of Johnny America Clothing
Earlier in 2013, Beth Peters and her husband Heath Peters, an Iraq War veteran, founded Johnny America Clothing, a non-profit organization, to “improve the mental and physical health of our veterans through physical fitness and community support.” In her own words, this is their story.
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have started, the public has developed a love affair for “supporting the troops” by showering veterans with free baseball tickets, blooming onions, drinks, furniture, and millions of handshakes and pats on the back. Our servicemen and women certainly earned themselves the free beers, but once the crowds have left and the care packages have ended, the veterans end up alone, staring at a mountain of paperwork and unsure of how to start their civilian lives. Many have experienced extreme life changes during their time in the military that often leave them without the support system they need. Additionally, their tight-knit group of friends has been dismantled, and their daily routines of running and lifting together made difficult to sustain alone. As a result, their physical fitness declines while depression, anxiety, and weight gain often settle in its place.
A Journey Back to Health
When I met my husband, Heath, in June of 2009, he was deep into the depression-drinking-laying-on-the-couch phase. He had just been laid off, and our mutual friend, whom my husband had met during his second deployment in Iraq, had recently committed suicide. At his worst, Heath was still an incredible person to be around, and six months after meeting, I moved across the country from California to be with him. In October 2010, we were married in Arkansas.
At the time of my move, Heath had been living alone and surviving on a diet of fast-food and beer. As someone who loves to cook, move, and be healthy in general, I brought around a lot of changes. We ate out less, took walks more, and tried to live healthier. He started doing better but occasionally would find himself still battling symptoms of depression, and he also took medication for high blood pressure.
We found CrossFit after completing a Whole30 challenge in January 2013 to kick start a healthier lifestyle. As a reward for finishing (and losing a combined thirty pounds), rather than binging or indulging in a “cheat” meal, we decided to sign up for a local affiliate’s 101 course and pay for the first month. I was terrified, but Heath was ready and encouraged me to give it a shot.
During my first workout, I was nearly in tears trying to keep up. It was a 200m run, 15-12-9 squats, body rows and push-ups, followed by another 200m run. It took me eleven minutes and forty four seconds. Heath fared better, completing it in just over eight minutes, but it was clear we both had a long way to go. I didn’t think I could come back the next night — I was too sore and embarrassed — but he insisted I stick with it. Besides, we had already paid for it. We were getting our money’s worth.
Seven months later, I’ve moved from a one rep max push press of 35 pounds to 85. Without my husband there encouraging me, challenging me to keep getting better and to push myself, I’m not sure I would have made it through the first month.
In seven months, Heath isn’t just Rx‘ing WODs; he is Level 1 certified and coaches five classes a week. Since January he’s lost 45 pounds of fat and added loads of muscle. He looks incredible — hardly even the same person. Our head trainer joked that his “before” photo from January made him look like he was about to rob a convenience store. Now he looks more like he could take the criminal down! The physical changes are the icing on the cake, however, compared to how he’s grown emotionally. He stands taller now, smiles more, doesn’t find himself swearing in rage at other drivers, and is more outgoing and social. When you’re in the middle of a WOD and you do not think you can do one more rep, he’s the guy you want in front of you, encouraging you to pick up the bar.
With CrossFit, Heath has become the best version of himself. He says he didn’t realize how bad he had been feeling until he didn’t feel it anymore, until the anger was gone. As his wife, it’s a relief to see him get past surviving and start thriving. Participating in this journey together has been an incredible investment in our marriage, too. We already knew we were lucky to have found each other and didn’t want to squander the time we’d been given on the couch, waiting for something exciting to happen.
Heath would have kept quietly suffering through his demons, assuming it was normal to feel that way, and I would have gone on assuming he was fine.
Paying It Forward: Founding Johnny America Clothing
There are veterans out there who have had it much, much worse. There are people reading this who have veteran spouses who have given up on living fulfilling lives, whose social anxiety prevents them from leaving the house, who blow up at their children when they trip over a toy, or who believe they’ll never live as good a life as they did before, when they were “in” or when they had all their limbs. The VA is always missing a piece of paperwork necessary to complete a claim and the stress that builds every day they wait for an appeal feels like it will swallow them whole.
This is why we started Johnny America Clothing.
We can’t end the VA backlog, but we can make the wait more bearable. We can help a veteran get out of his or her house and start building relationships. With exercise and the support the CrossFit community provides, we can help them start to get past their depression, weight gain, substance abuse, anxiety, and anger.
Johnny America’s mission is to improve the physical and mental health of veterans through physical fitness and community support. By providing veterans with “scholarships” to join a local CrossFit affiliate, we’re enabling them to take some of the control back over their health. After watching my husband transform himself through CrossFit, we knew we had to share his success and try to duplicate it with others.
Our scholarships are not handouts. We use a gradual release of financial responsibility to slowly adjust the amount our clients pay from 0%, to 15%, to 50% and finally 100% after 12 months. Like any sponsorship or scholarships, JAC’s must be earned and maintained. Veterans have to apply or be nominated by someone they know and commit in writing to CrossFit for six months at a time. If they aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain (actively participating in CrossFit WODs several days a week), then their scholarship will be revoked.
We’re a very small, new organization. We have one client working out in Fort Smith, Arkansas and another in the process of applying and starting in Little Rock. So far, it’s just my husband and I running this operation from our kitchen table. But the long nights, working weekends, and stress will all be worth it if we can help make just one veteran’s life better.
We could use your help as well! Spread the word on Facebook and Twitter, make a donation, buy a shirt, get your box involved, or volunteer services. The CrossFit community is extraordinarily generous and helpful and we’re proud to be a part of it. Supporting veterans is more than a yellow ribbon, and it doesn’t end once the battle is over. Help Johnny America Clothing support veterans from the battlefield to the box!
Support Johnny America Clothing on Facebook and Twitter at @JohnnyAmericaCF. To find out more about how to make a donation, buy a shirt, volunteer, or nominate a veteran you know, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.