The Vietnam War broke Shawn Burke’s father. As a child, Shawn didn’t know why the man was absent. What he did know was that war changed him. When the time came, Shawn enlisted to understand. In Panama as an Army Ranger, he got his answer. “They teach you how to be mentally and physically fit to go to war and combat,” Burke said. “I found out … I saw some pretty horrific things.” He discovered, though, that the real crux of the issue with his father was in transitioning to civilian life. Warfare leaves its mark mentally just as much physically. “Because I couldn’t help him, because it was too late, my goal was: how can I help others?” Burke said. Later as a physical therapist, he found physical and mental fitness may have been a missing piece of the puzzle. He ran a test program to see if he was right. “I started a pilot program with 10 homeless Veterans that were living out of their cars,” Burke said. After eight months, the Veterans weren’t just blooming in the program. They became more productive overall — punctuality led to jobs that led to stability, all the while they were building mental fortitude. So, Burke started a non-profit named Foundation Fitness with his best friend Scott Lane. Since its start, the grant-funded Veteran wellness program has helped rebuild about 120 Veterans in a Pacific Northwest gym.
The program is built to care for those who come for help. “You don’t come here if you want to throw some barbells and grunt and look at chicks,” Lane said. “This is their home. Shawn’s done a good job of creating that. He’s their brother.” Burke said he’s created a community within the gym for Veterans of all ages, a sort of support system that acts as a family. Of course, there are barriers. Some Veterans don’t know how to ask for help or where to find it, he said. This non-profit, at times, acts as an intervention. Roughly 22 Veterans commit suicide every day. Success in this program means providing a place to come together. “It’s why I keep doing what I’m doing, because there’s so many veterans out there that don’t have a direction and they’re lost,” Burke said. “I’ve had many veterans come in and [say], ‘This was my last step.’ And I have many of them come in the door and say if it wasn’t for this program and someone understanding us I would have been one of those 22 veterans.” Other times, Foundation Fitness will literally help people find their footing.
That’s the case for Ron Dreager, a Navy Veteran who did two tours off the coast of Vietnam and left in 1969 to install amusement rides around the globe. After decades of globe trotting, he slowed down. Then, health problems stood in the way. His esophagus was removed. His right foot was reconstructed. His hip went out. However, he got splints on his legs and had access (free of charge) to the anti-gravity treadmill in Foundation Fitness. He’s up to 1.5 miles a day, three days a week. Small changes can have a positive impact on morale. “I can walk with people and keep up. They don’t have to keep waiting for me,” Dreager said. Some Veterans in the gym use it for mental stability. Hal Donahue is there because it gives him a positive outlook. His wife, whom he married in 1959, has Alzheimer’s. His time in the gym while she is in the nursing home helps him stay positive. Donahue served in the Navy aboard a destroyer from 1952 to 1956, during the Korean War.
“When I graduated high school, in 1951, they handed your diploma in one hand and greetings from Uncle Sam in the other,” Donahue said. “The Korean War was on, and I joined in.” Margaret Ogram, who retired from the Air Force with 30 years of combined service in the intelligence career field, said the gym is a family. “It is community. I come three times a week and I see Scott and Shawn, one or the other or both, every time. They watch what I’m doing and they see progress and I think they feel proud … they show me off because I’m the oldest one and I’m more physically fit than most people my age,” Ogram, 86, said. It’s more than weights and treadmills for older Veterans like her. “You can do something when you’re old besides sitting waiting to die,” she said. Several Veterans share the same sentiment: people break, but they can be fixed. “There are veterans out there that have no hope. They’ve given everything they could in their life,” Burke said. “When you see one veteran change and you see another veteran change and you see another veteran change, you can’t let it go. You know there’s so much more out there that you can do.”
About the author: Jake Smith is a contributing editor at Alien Gear Holsters and Bigfoot Gun Belts, brands owned and operated by Tedder Industries. He also freelances in the Pacific Northwest as a writer and photographer.