BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Every day, 20 veterans are lost through suicide. Sometimes, it’s the result of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or the feeling of isolation in returning to civilian life.
Understanding the challenges that veterans face, Army veteran Jason Graven decided to do something about it. In 2016, he founded Task Force 20, a nonprofit that provides funds for veterans to “train, compete and survive together.”
“The main objective is to stop the suicide pandemic. There’s a direct correlation to mental health and exercise,” said Graven, a 1998 Anthony Wayne High School graduate who enlisted in the Army shortly after 9/11.
For some veterans, especially those living on a fixed income, finding the funds to pay for a gym membership is out of the question. Task Force 20 raises those funds and works with fitness facilities to provide free memberships for veterans.
In Maumee’s Parkway Plaza, Revitalize Fitness founder Stephen Flory displays a wall of military flags above the weight machines, where veterans and first responders were among those working out on a recent Saturday morning. An Army veteran who ended his service as a corporal in 2012 after six years – with one deployment to Afghanistan – Flory knows how odd it feels to return to civilian life after being told what to do for years. He also wanted the camaraderie that comes with being in the military.
“When I got back, I kept to myself. I met one veteran and we talked for a half-hour. I got more out of talking to him than I did out of hours of counseling. Talking to another veteran – they get it.”
When Marine infantry veteran Harvey Weiss relocated to the area from San Diego late last year, he didn’t know anyone. While he used to golf to clear his head, Weiss said physical disabilities and long cancer treatments kept him away from the greens and the gym. Task Force 20 was the first military support group Weiss found, and he was approved to work out at Revitalize.
“With the gym, it’s like a newfound love. It replaces what golf used to be for me – it gets me out of my head. It’s a nice mental break,” said Weiss. “I now work out with a trainer, and it’s easier to get out of my social bubble.”
For Weiss, having childcare at Revitalize helps eliminate excuses. At the same time, he wants to stay healthy to be around for his kids, he said.
“The ultimate goal is to promote a healthy and active lifestyle and to find solace in others,” Graven said. “The vets keep each other active and share a camaraderie.”
That includes checking up on each other’s well-being, Flory said. He told of a Vietnam veteran who came daily but was missing one morning. “I called him up to ask if he was OK,” Flory said. “He forgot to tell me he had an appointment that morning. This is a community of brotherhood. We check up on each other.”
When Graven returned from serving over three years as a military police officer, he was medically discharged due to breathing issues. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA from The University of Toledo and moved to Delaware, Ohio, to work for the American Legion Department of Ohio headquarters as the membership coordinator. He now serves as Bowling Green State University’s military program coordinator.
As he worked with veterans, he began forming the idea of a nonprofit organization to link them up with resources to keep exercising. One veteran, for example, was granted just 12 visits to a pool for aquatherapy, but she needed much more. Task Force 20 worked with her local YMCA to get her in so that she can continue several days a week.
Veterans can choose which gym or facility works best for them, considering factors such as child care, a pool and proximity to home or work. When veterans have a choice, they’re more likely to stick with the program, Graven said.
Saturday, June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day. While Task Force 20 doesn’t ask its clients to disclose any mental health issues, Graven understands that some may be dealing with it.
“PTSD can come in many forms. You didn’t necessarily need to be in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said, adding that women who have experienced sexual assault in the military also deal with PTSD.
Initially, Graven planned a Task Force 20 5K and Veterans Resource Fair for Saturday, June 27 in Whitehouse, but due to the pandemic, that’s been postponed a year to June 27, 2021. He’s gathering veterans’ organizations and businesses to be a part of the one-stop resource for vets.
This Saturday won’t be wasted, though, as veterans and supporters can still take part in a virtual 5K to raise funds for the organization. Ideally, teams of four will walk, run or roll to the finish line together.
Any funds raised locally remain local, even as Task Force 20 has chapters in Central Ohio and Northeast Indiana as well as Northwest Ohio.