Helping Soldiers transition back into the community reached new heights this summer, as Fairfax County introduced Project WOW! to the delight of many Wounded Warriors from Fort Belvoir.
The program, which stands for Wellness Opportunities for Warriors, is free for military servicemembers injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. It comes by way of a partnership between Fairfax County's Neighborhood Community Services, the Fairfax County Park Authority, the American Legion Post 162 of Lorton and Belvoir's Warrior-in-Transition Unit and Soldier and Family Assistance Center.
Evan Braff, division supervisor for Fairfax County's Recreation Program, said he applied for a grant late last year with the help of area resident Charles Voccio, a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of American Legion Post 162.
After getting word their application was approved, Braff said the county received a grant in the amount of $12,500 from the National Recreation and Park Association - one of only 12 agencies in 10 states to receive a grant this year for community programs geared towards injured military personnel.
Besides working with Fairfax County, Braff also teaches a class on community recreation at George Mason University. It's where he met Mike Hartzell, who is a former student of his and a 2010 graduate of the university's School of Recreation and Tourism.
After taking quick note of Hartzell's passion for recreation and helping others, Braff asked him to serve as the program's manager. The college grad, who is in the midst of completing a summer internship, has been off and running ever since.
"The biggest challenge we knew we would encounter was how to properly meet the needs of these Soldiers. The only way to do that would be to sit down and talk with them one on one," Hartzell said. "There are many new Soldiers coming in and out of Belvoir's WTU. We wanted to know what activities they liked and what they wanted to participate in. It's about what they want, not what we want."
With a therapeutic recreation program designed with the input of Belvoir's Wounded Warriors, Hartzell came up with a list of activities that included hiking, canoeing, kayaking, bowling and rock climbing.
The program, which Hartzell admits is the first of its kind in the region, kicked off mid-June and wraps up with a barbeque for Soldiers at Burke Lake Park August 5.
According to Hartzell, the idea is to have three or four sessions a year with a different activity held once a week for eight weeks. He said activities would also be in line with whatever season it is at the time.
Another interesting aspect of Project WOW! is the presence of veterans who serve as mentors to injured Soldiers. Hartzell said mentors have been instrumental in assisting class activities and helping Soldiers discover their physical preferences.
"I heard about the program through Fairfax County and thought this would be a great program to get involved with. It's my way of giving back to these fantastic citizens," said Kenneth Curry, a retired Lt. Col. with the Army and one of 10 veteran mentors with the program. "This will help them reintegrate into society and get them into recreation. Those are big-time positives."
Capt. Chip Sell and 1st Lt. Scott Crawford of Belvoir's WTU were two of about 10 Soldiers attending a recent rock climbing class at the Sport Rock in Alexandria. Both agreed on the program's incredible upside.
"Public support is the best thing for Soldiers who are coming back home. It's also a terrific way to meet new people," Sell said. "I think activities like this are just what people need. It's great to see Soldiers taking advantage of this."
For Soldiers not interested in a structured physical recreation program, Hartzell said they can opt to receive a recreation center voucher entitling the holder to 25 visits to a recreation center of his or her choice. When asked about the future of the program, Hartzell envisions a promising one, particularly with Belvoir's WTU population set to triple once the new barracks opens.
"We're really happy with the turnout so far and expect many more Soldiers to get involved down the road. It's been fun for everyone involved and very beneficial to the Wounded Warriors," Hartzell said. "We will need sponsors to help us provide certain services. Though, people want to help their Soldiers and do whatever they can. That compassion is always there."
For more information on Fairfax County's Project WOW!, call Hartzell at 703-324-9566 or e-mail michael.hartzell @fairfaxcounty.gov. Any veteran interested in becoming a mentor should contact Evan Braff at 703-324-5650 or e-mail evan.braff@fairfaxcounty. gov.
By Paul Bello
Belvoir Eagle, July 22, 2010