Local Veteran Opens Gym

Mike Emory opened Victory Gym for veterans, and with a few goals in mind: to give them a place to feel “human again,” a place to belong, and to reconnect with other veterans. He also wanted to help veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other health issues navigate the Veterans Affairs system to receive the help they need and deserve. His gym also pays tribute to veterans local and otherwise, who have taken their own lives due to PTSD, or were killed in action in one of the wars.

When you walk into Victory Gym in Brownstown, you instantly get that military feel. Flags hang high on the walls, boards are painted to resemble service ribbons, and rock music blasts through the speakers. You also see a wall dedicated to service men and women who were killed in action, or committed suicide due to PSTD related health issues. Their pictures are proudly displayed for all to see so that they may not be forgotten.

Emory joined the Army in 1992. He was deployed to Macedonia in 1994, Bosnia in 1996, and Iraq in 2004. He said he really started realizing he had PTSD in 2010, when his symptoms included “flash rage, followed by noticed anxiety, hyper vigilance and depression.”

Emory is one of hundreds of thousands of veterans that suffer from PTSD related health issues. The National Council for Behavioral Health states that “approximately 730,000 men and women [experience] post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression.” The NCBH goes on to say, “Less than 50 percent of returning veterans in need receive any mental health treatment.” The Veterans Administration reports, “approximately 22 veterans die by suicide every day.”

“I think it’s partly because we as veterans won’t admit there is something wrong. Sometimes it’s too late and people end up taking their own lives,” Emory said. Victory Gym not only offers exercise equipment and free weights, it also offers peer led group therapy sessions, hiking, running marathons and other team building activities. Emory admitted he wasn’t going to make the gym open to civilians, but changed his mind when he realized, “it could benefit everyone by having that interaction and letting civilians know that veterans struggling with these silent demons, may just need a friend to talk to.”

Emory also offers help navigating the VA system, as it can be overwhelming for some people struggling with PTSD to get the benefits and money that can help them seek medical attention.

Emory experienced the challenges of seeking help. He said the chaplain he was sent to was “useless” and it took over six years to to finally get the right care he needed. He had attended “numerous group therapy sessions as well as cognitive reasoning classes through the VA,” but it wasn’t until he checked himself into an inpatient program in Kentucky that wasn’t affiliated with the VA that he said he “actually felt like he was making positive changes.”

“One of the things we do is help weed through the BS. Everyone you talk to says that they can or will help you but a lot of them don’t.” Veterans seeking benefits can experience unreturned phone calls and getting the run around on appointments. “We are helping to find the right organizations that actually make things happen for these veterans,” said Emory.

Sergeant First Class Christopher Sesnie is an active duty reservist with the Michigan Army National Guard. He served two tours in Iraq, one in 1994, the other in 2004, seeing combat both times. He is good friends with Emory; in fact, they were roommates in Iraq together in 2004. Sesnie has not been diagnosed with PTSD, but says he can recognize some signs. He says the gym “creates a trusting environment for veterans to feel like they belong. When you’re in a group of buddies that have seen the same things you have, or have similar emotional issues as you, you feel you can open up a bit more and that relieves some of that stress and anxiety.”

PTSD has affected Emory’s relationships with family and friends. “I had a short fuse with those close to me, I found myself not wanting anyone around, avoiding people and places. But it’s had positive effects too. Through treatment and learning how to cope, I’ve become closer to loved ones now than I ever was.”

Emory ends the interview expressing why Victory Gym means so much to him. “It’s helped me get back all this life I get to live! Plus, look at all the people I get to meet and help.” For Emory, that’s reward enough.

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