Veterans, first responders in Phoenix workout to combat mental illness | Phoenix New Times
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Veterans, first responders in Phoenix workout to combat mental illness

"We're addressing the body from below and above the shoulders."
Two Phoenix Police Department officers took part in a May 12 training session at Exos in Phoenix.
Two Phoenix Police Department officers took part in a May 12 training session at Exos in Phoenix. O'Hara Shipe
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In 2019, a bombshell was dropped on Tucson native Steven Nisbet: His wife and two young sons were afraid of him.

A 14-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Nisbet survived 10 combat deployments in Afghanistan, Africa, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, but seeing fear in his family’s eyes was something he didn’t know if he could overcome.

“Ultimately, my wife sat me down one day and said, ‘Hey, your two boys are scared of you.’ And that was a heavy hit and a kick to the gut,” Nisbet told Phoenix New Times. “Everything was compiling on top of each other, and I knew I had to go see someone.”

Nisbet turned to military psychologists, physical therapists and a strength conditioning coach to help him holistically treat his depression and PTSD. “Working with a support team started to really address some of the PTSD issues that I had. So everything was really working together to heal my whole body and mind,” Nisbet said.

For a time, his depression and PTSD symptoms subsided, and Nisbet returned to service. Then, tragedy struck.

During a mountain rescue training session that Nisbet was leading, the anchor that was meant to safely support his team members as they made their way down the steep rock face, failed. One soldier fell 70-feet, pulling a second soldier down the mountain with him. Although Nisbet tried to provide lifesaving measures, he was unable to save one of the badly injured soldiers.

“That really threw me over the edge of as far as PTSD, depression, anxiety — all those symptoms of guilt,” Nisbet explained.

The incident forced Nisbet to medically retire in 2021. At the time, he was worried that he would lose the team of professionals who had helped stabilize him physically and mentally.

“I thought, I'm gonna lose them. I'm going to be stuck in the [Veterans Affairs], and I'm going to be treated like everybody else. So, I called up a buddy and was like, ‘Hey, what do you do to stay together?’ He gave me a list of all these things,” Nisbet said. That list included elite-level athletic training, intensive psychological counseling and occupational therapy.

“I was like, ‘That sounds like a full-time job. How am I going to keep that going?’” Nisbet recalled.

Although daunted by the program, Nisbet also saw it as an opportunity to create a healing environment for others struggling with mental and physical illness. When he retired, he co-founded Shields & Stripes, a nonprofit that provides services to improve the mental and physical health of veterans, first responders and police officers.

The organization quickly partnered with Exos, a fitness company that specializes in training athletes to provide customized in-house mental, physical, cognitive and nutritional programming. Exos also trains NFL prospects, including Paris Johnson, who was picked sixth overall in the 2023 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals.

“When PTSD sets in, and depression and anxiety, you really start to wear it on your body. So, if we can reverse all that and address all of those things in one place, rather than sending somebody to a doctor's office and they only get psychotherapy, we're resetting everything,” Nisbet said.

On May 12, Nisbet and Exos programming manager Giovani Urrutia hosted a group of 12 veterans, Phoenix police officers and their spouses at Exos' Phoenix location. For two hours, participants lifted weights, bear crawled and shared their personal experiences with mental illness.

"Projects like what Exos is doing with Shields & Stripes lead to actual real long-term change. Through hard work, through mental performance skills training, through physical therapy, we're addressing the body from below and above the shoulders," Urrutia said.

From June to October, Exos will operate "The Game Changer," a six-week intensive program.
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"Donated concert tickets and experiences are OK for thanking veterans, but they are just that — short-lived experiences. What a lot of us need is to heal from the inside out, and that's why this program is important," said Giovani Urrutia, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and programming manager at Exos.
O'Hara Shipe
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Two Phoenix Police Department officers took part in a May 12 training session at Exos in Phoenix.
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A Phoenix officer and competitive fitness athlete completes a set of exercises at Exos.
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Urrutia explains the proper technique for bear crawling on the astroturf-covered backlot of Exos in Phoenix.
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Athletes bear crawled with cones resting on their backs in 90-degree temperatures.
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A Phoenix officer rests in the shade between sets of bear crawls.
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The grueling two-hour workout included functional training, cardio and weightlifting.
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Participants were given custom recovery drinks made from whey protein, fruit and peanut butter. Each drink was blended to meet the specific nutritional needs of each participant.
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Urrutia led an informal discussion about the benefits of the full Shields & Stripes program, while participants cooled down with smoothies.
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Tucson native, and Shields & Stripes co-founder, Steven Nisbet, talked with participants about the full "Game Changer" program that runs in 6-week cohorts from June to August.
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Workout participants posed for a group photo before breaking into smaller groups to share their experiences with mental illness. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs' 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, as well as data from America's Warrior Partnership, more than 38,000 veterans have been lost to suicide since 2001.
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