WarriorWOD Saves Veterans’ Lives, Treats PTSD with Fitness, Nutrition and Community
After serving in the United States Marine Corps for close to a decade and battling with the invisible wounds of PTSD for years, Phil Palmer walked into C4 CrossFit outside of Houston in 2015, just a mile away from his house.
He was new to Texas, wanted to join a gym, but didn’t necessarily know anything about CrossFit, its ethos, its structure or the reverence the sport and its community has for the men and women who serve our country.
Palmer immediately saw the United States flag on the wall. He continued scanning the space and saw a Marine Corps flag as well. All the armed services were represented. After the interminable isolation he felt due to his PTSD, he was overcome by a sense of peace.
He had found empathy.
He had found his community.
Some background: Palmer entered into the Marine Corps in 2005 and by 2006 he was sent to Iraq, where he fought at the Battle for Ramadi.
- “I was sent in and immediately… it was kinetic, it was chaotic, I was hit by an IED. It was nothing catastrophic for me, but we lost so many people. I came home with so many mental wounds,” said Palmer.
Not only was he facing an internal battle for wellness and overcoming his PTSD, but he was also saddled with the stigma of mental illness. As he desired a career in the armed forces, complete with promotions and climbing the ranks of the Marine Corps, the reality was that “leaders didn’t have mental health issues,” Palmer recalled.
- “We hid our mental wounds–our invisible wounds,” said Palmer.
As Palmer attempted recovery, he engaged with Veterans Affairs services that offered medication and talk therapy. While Palmer was and still is in support of these methods, he admits that they did little to help him personally. On the contrary, the medication he took kept him from functioning and the therapy contributed to his feelings of isolation.
- “I’m communicating with my therapist, trying to describe what it felt like to watch 18 of my friends burn to death, and I realize I’m scaring her. I mean, she felt for me, I could tell her heart was with me, but she couldn’t empathize with me. Nobody could understand. So it couldn’t help,” said Palmer.
Enter CrossFit: Flashback to Palmer stepping foot into C4 CrossFit in Houston. He continued his involvement in the CrossFit community and as he later moved back to Charleston, South Carolina, his hometown, where he joined Iron Bridge CrossFit.
Shortly after joining, he was told by owners Donnie and Shannon McDaniel that every July 4th the gym community participates in multiple Hero WODs, none of which were commonly known like Murph.
For Iron Bridge CrossFit, they wanted to honor “homegrown heroes”: heroes that were familiar to their community, giving their members an experience that would be uniquely intimate and personal.
- Palmer was asked if he had anyone he wanted to honor and indeed he did: Joshua Booth, a fellow Citadel classmate, who was killed by a sniper while he was in Iraq.
Iron Bridge CrossFit had given Palmer, alongside his CrossFit community, the opportunity and the privilege to honor Booth and grieve this devastating loss.
Immediately upon this catharsis, Palmer was introduced to Justin Riccio, a fellow CrossFitter. Having battled PTSD himself, as well as the pain of the tragic loss of his brother to suicide, Riccio knew first hand the healing power of fitness and community.
WarriorWOD: After years of hearing countless friends and fellow veterans were losing their battle to substance abuse, falling victim to suicide and sinking deeper into the black hole of depression and PTSD, Palmer and Riccio formed WarriorWOD, a non-profit organization, aimed at helping men and women suffering from invisible wounds and mental trauma via fitness, nutrition, community and accountability.
- “In 2021, we helped 2 veterans. By 2022, we were able to help 13. The entire program is non-profit, and we rely 100% on the donations of generous grants, corporations and individuals. This is the only reason we were and still are somewhat limited to how many individuals we can help.”
- “In 2023, we helped 75 individuals… We received a grant that is allowing us to take on 75 more, so that makes 150 veterans that we are able to help this year, and next year, we hope to make it 300,” said Palmer.
Why it matters: Palmer painted a visual, and called to mind the vast and overwhelming Vietnam memorial in Washington DC: a stark wall that seems to go on infinitely. On that wall are 58,000 names. If there were a memorial wall, listing all the veterans who have died by suicide or by substance abuse since September 11, 2001, that hypothetical memorial would be four times larger, with 260,000 names.
Every year, 12,000 veterans die either by suicide or by substance abuse, because of their untreated PTSD.
- But through WarriorWOD, Palmer and Riccio have found a way to help. Every six months, the program accepts a new cohort of applicants, based solely on need.
- Regardless of race, gender, rank or branch, new veterans are welcomed to the program and begin their journey towards recovery.
- WarriorWOD collaborates with the members to find them a gym, pair them with a nutritionist and the most integral component of the program, a Battle Buddy, which is a friend, comrade, confidant, and most importantly a fellow veteran who can empathize with the darkness and stigma of depression, anxiety and PTSD.
WarriorWOD reports an 18% decrease in PTSD symptoms in their cohort members, after they finish the program, which consists of exercise at least twice a week, meeting with a nutritionist once every two weeks and checking in with their Battle Buddy once every two weeks, although Palmer explains this often becomes a semi-daily call or text message, as the bond becomes strong, genuine and long-lasting.
The details: The next cohort will begin in November, and WarriorWOD is accepting applications until October 10th. Additionally, the program is always looking for more Battle Buddies and ultimately, funding. As the program is completely non-profit, and fully reliant on donations, the more funds they receive, the more men and women they can help, the more lives they can save.
- I Got Your Six: While WarriorWOD hosts multiple events throughout the year, their largest is slated for June, which is PTSD awareness month, on the 22nd and 23rd. The event, “I Got Your Six,” will be a multi-day fitness and music festival, held in Charleston, South Carolina.
With 100% of the proceeds going to support veterans, Palmer envisions FitTalks, similar to TED Talks with inspirational speakers, CrossFit leaders and athletes sharing their personal military experience. The workouts programmed will be exclusively Hero WODs, ammo cans will be used in the place of kettlebells and it will be an event “galvanizing the fitness community around our nation’s heroes,” explained Palmer.
The bottom line: Palmer emphasizes that as depression and PTSD are common mental health issues, everyone knows someone who is suffering in silence. He places a call to action throughout our communities, CrossFit and otherwise:
“Care about people. Ask how someone is doing. Don’t accept, ‘everything is good.’ Especially when you know it’s not. Sometimes we don’t expect to be told the truth about how someone really is doing, and sometimes we’re not prepared to give it ourselves. Show empathy, not everything is always going to be ok. You could save someone’s life just by caring about how they’re doing right then.”