Rachel Rugato always knew she was meant for something bigger than herself. At age 17, she enlisted in the Marine Corps. It was a calling that gave her life purpose, she said.
“They had a warrior mentality and a fighting spirit that I resonated with so deeply,” Rugato told “Nightline.” “It encompassed so much of my life, my childhood. It had all of the aspects and components that I needed to fulfill who I was as a person. And you had the family, you had the camaraderie.”
In 2011, she deployed to Afghanistan as a radio operator. As the Pentagon began to downsize troops, Rugato said she was discharged after four years of service. She says she was denied reenlistment due to the tattoo policy, which prohibited Marines from showing their ink in uniform.
“I was like, man, I can't lose my career. I put everything into this. Everything I am as a person, this is all I ever wanted, this is in my whole heart and soul,” she said. “I have 20 years planned out for myself and I got so scared in that moment that I spoke out. And I said, ‘Sir, I’m a damn good Marine. I deserve to be here.’ And he looked up from his paperwork at me and said, ‘You were a good Marine.’ Boom denied. And it was such a heart wrenching experience for me.”
Her transition back to civilian life was “brutal,” she said.
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“[It] was very rough,” she said, noting that she went through a divorce. “It was [an] immediate loss, very quickly, of everything. I had lost my career, my marriage had suffered.”
Rugato became homeless and began living out of her car after her military discharge.
During this time, Rugato turned to fitness. “I entered the world of bodybuilding,” she said. “I started getting endorphins back. I had a sense of camaraderie again. I was in a gym, among other people who were going towards the same goal.”
After years of rebuilding her life, she began a new mission. Rugato found out about a program called FitOps— a high intensity program founded by Army veteran Matt Hesse in 2017, after he saw the difficulties many service members face transitioning to civilian life. The program provides tools and training to turn the best in the battlefield into elite personal trainers.
“They're trained to lead. They're trained to serve other people,” Hesse said of the veterans he works with. “Someone who is willing to put everything on the side and put their life on the line for other people because they want to help people is really special. If you're going to go after something as important as changing your life through fitness, who do you want to help you do it? Somebody that has that mentality that will run through a wall for you.”
Hesse said the transition back to civilian life points to a larger issue: a loss of purpose. But, he said, if you bring together the power of fitness and a career serving the community as a personal trainer, “It's just a really easy way to help create a path out,” he said.
His goal is to help veterans turn a new page, Hesse said.
“These FitOps camps are as much about teaching personal trainers as they are about teaching them to decompartmentalize,” he said, adding that he helps them open up and “share the things that are holding them down.”
“[The program] allows them to finally move ahead in their life,” Hesse said.
While the in-person camps were put on hold during the pandemic, FitOps has started to enroll participants for their next programs that will resume when it’s safe.
The COVID-19 crisis has put an unprecedented strain on Americans’ mental health -- and has been particularly difficult for military veterans who might already be struggling with PTSD or other mental health issues.
A survey from the Cohen Veterans Network shows nearly seven in 10 veterans who served after 9/11 said they were concerned about their mental health because of social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Six in 10 said they were concerned about their employment.
Risk of suicide among veterans is an ongoing concern, Tracy Neal-Walden, chief clinical officer of Cohen Veterans Network, said.
“The pandemic has been very hard on everyone, and I think especially hard on those who are already struggling with mental health concerns,” Neal-Walden told “Nightline,” adding that existing mental health problems were piled upon with social isolation, child care needs, illness, job insecurity and troubling navigating a change to remote work.
“Suicide is much higher within the veteran population,” Neal-Walden said. “When you couple additional stressors and that loss of community as well as loss of belongingness, then decreased sense of purpose, those can add on additional risk factors for a veteran.”
FitOps became a lifeline for Army combat veteran Bobby Somers. He said if he hadn’t found the program, he wouldn’t be alive today.
“In July ‘03, [a] grenade blew up on the hood of my Humvee. I was the driver. It blew up right in front of my face. I still don't know how I'm here at all,” Somers said. Then, in January 2004, he was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) and took shrapnel to his leg.
“I just remember waking up, shaking ... smelling gunpowder and dirt,” he said. “I received a Purple Heart while I was over there, and they sent me to the Wounded Transition Battalion. From there is when they told me that I could ... no longer continue being a soldier.”
But that was the only thing he’d ever done, Somers said.
“I didn't finish high school,” he said. “I have this pattern of not finishing, not completing. So when they told me I couldn’t be a soldier, [that pattern] just continued. There is something else that I started, and I wasn't going to finish. So it was devastating. And that's when all of the feelings came out.”
After 13 years, Somers medically retired from the Army as a disabled veteran. His daughter was less than 1 year old when his wife, who is also a service member, received orders to deploy.
“That was the first time I attempted suicide,” Somers said. “I just wasn't thinking. It just went down from there.”
Somers said he gave up on himself and lost purpose.
“It seemed like I was more of a problem to everybody than a solution,” he said. “I was a Fort Bragg soldier. You know, you're supposed to be the toughest thing in the world. You're supposed to be the best of the best. And I just kept it all in. I just kept it all in.”
It was shortly after that Somers found out about FitOps.
“My life changed,” he said. “I was not going to fail no more missions anywhere. I was gonna get it done.”
“My mission now is to help find these tough guys who think that they’re [a] hard piece of metal,” he said. “Everybody knows you get enough fire to metal, you're gonna bend it. And I'm trying to get all these tough guys, and I want to be the fire to bend them and show them that it's OK. But the biggest thing is to cut [the] number [of veteran suicides] down ...Get it to zero. My mission is to get it to zero.”
According to the Dept. of Veteran’s Affairs, 6,435 veterans died by suicide in 2018 and an average of 17 veterans died by suicide each day.
Somers went to culinary school and became the head chef and director of nutrition at FitOps, offering everything from nutrition to physical training.
“We just bring a heart with everything we do, and that's one thing I like to tell everybody. You know, my message when I speak now is just love,” he said. “No matter what you're doing, you just gotta love it. In the kitchen, you can taste love. In the gym you know, you work out with love.”
Hesse said he believes too many veterans are coming out of the military without the tools they need to be successful and struggle to let go of the things they’ve dealt with.
“The piece that is the most special, I think, is putting them in a camp where they can feel comfortable enough away from civilian life and around other people who they recognize as brothers and sisters and letting them open up and share the things that are holding them down,” Hesse said.
Rugato said with FitOps, she hopes to create a new sense of self.
She said she has “been completely inspired to take on a new level of educational training so that I can go back and … help all these other veterans that are coming in, because not just FitOps, but fitness saved my life.”
“If I can give them that experience and they don't have to go through that hardship or they don't have to go through it alone, it would be worth everything,” she said.