Helping cleanse the soul
Story BY Tyler Eagle
Photos by Tom Hawley
As its patrons sprint on treadmills or pump iron at weight stations, American flags stand watch over the members of Victory Gym.
The setup is typical— the industrial space is filled with large, sprawling exercise machines. Music pumps through the room, mingling with the clinks and clanks of metal as patrons work out. Some people lend a friendly spot while others move between pieces of equipment.
Although it bears the typical aesthetic of a fitness facility, the gym located in Brownstown Township at 23156 King Rd. is designed with a specific group in mind: veterans and first responders.
Nearly half of Victory Gym’s 1,500 members meet the criteria. Although open to all, the non-profit gym offers free memberships to veterans and first responders. It charges a nominal monthly fee — $10 for students and $15 for civilians – to others who want to use the gym.
“Our motto is a healthy body leads to a healthy mind,” said Tim Woolley, vice president of the gym. “Veterans and first responders have a place to come to work out and get that military camaraderie.”
Tim, an army veteran who served during Desert Storm and also serves as a City of Taylor City councilman, has been a part of the facility since it was founded in 2015 by Mike Emory, an Army veteran who completed three deployments to Iraq.
Mike, the gym’s president, wanted to create a gym that offered veterans the opportunity to gather and support one another while using physical fitness as a coping mechanism.
“Every single thing we do in here, every aspect, is some sort of therapy,” Mike said.
Gym manager Kyle Wrobleski, a Navy veteran who served during Desert Storm, said physical fitness has helped him deal with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He visits the gym every day, usually taking his daughter along with him.
He said the experience has greatly improved his home life. While working out gives him focus and an outlet for his energy, the networking opportunities the gym has provided has been just as valuable.
“We like to give back and help fellow veterans and first responders not just work out, but talk to somebody,” Kyle said. “You would be surprised how much that helps.”
Victory Gym also hosts a support group for veterans and first responders dealing with PTSD, as well as a separate meeting for caregivers.
“A veteran always understands another veteran,” said Jeff Sadler, an Army veteran who volunteers at the gym. “Instead of trying to take that rage out on someone else, you try to get in here and take it out on the weights. You feel a lot better when you’re done. It cleanses your soul.”
Having a support system is critical, especially for veterans dealing with PTSD and stress, Mike said. According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans are 22 percent more likely to commit suicide than a typical civilian. On average, 20 veterans die each day by suicide, with the majority of those deaths occurring among younger veterans.
Since its creation, no member of the gym has fallen prey to that statistic, a fact that gives Mike pride. The gym provides a safe, supportive place for veterans in turmoil, which is why he dedicates so much time to it.
“It could have been that day that the person sat there with a pistol and looked at it, and instead they got up and said, ‘I’m going to go work out,’ ” Mike said.
“We got to get people in here because when they’re in here and they’re focused and doing something it lessens the likelihood of them falling into that catechism.”
Mike retired from the Army in 2014. As he returned to civilian life in the United States, he struggled to process what he had seen in Iraq. He became addicted to video games, sometimes playing for 20-hour stretches. Concerned for her husband, Mike’s wife, Becca, bought him a membership to Powerhouse Gym in Brownstown.
He quickly embraced his new healthy lifestyle. He got to know several other gym-goers and eventually became an employee at Powerhouse.
“Things started to look up,” Mike said. “I was tracking what I was eating and how much I was working out. It gave me a new sense of purpose.”
A year later he was devastated when Powerhouse abruptly closed with no warning to its employees or members. Without the gym, Mike lost his ability to cope with his PTSD, often battling rage and anger. His condition became so severe he had to check into a special hospital in Tennessee.
As he sought treatment, Mike considered what he would do after he was discharged. Inspired by his experiences, he envisioned a non-profit gym that catered to veterans.
“What made me happiest was being around fitness and being near people that were in that same mindset,” he said. “I decided I was going to start a gym.”
The community plays an active role in Victory Gym’s success.
No one at the gym receives any kind of compensation. All of the equipment at the gym has been donated as well as the food and water on hand for members. And a continuously growing roster of civilian volunteers mans the facility, helping to ensure that it is open every day of the year, especially around the holidays.
Currently, around 60 people serve as volunteers.
Mike has been surprised by the civilians’ dedication to the gym. At first he first thought veterans would take the lead but he has discovered that civilians have been eager to step in and help where they can.
He said he often has people fighting to work.
While not a veteran herself, Executive Director Char Haenar’s involvement in the gym was spurred by her son’s interest in working with veterans. She wandered into the gym one day and signed up to volunteer. Beginning with one-hour shifts, she was amazed by the atmosphere and the impact she could see it having on veterans.
She continued to spend more time there, eventually working up to being the gym’s executive director. Now that her son has enlisted in the Army, the connection she feels to the gym is amplified.
“As a civilian it enriches our lives, too. For us to be part of this community with them feels amazing,” Char said. “I didn’t understand there was such a different culture between veterans and civilians. It’s difficult for veterans to integrate back into society.”