For military veterans who return from war with wounds
and injuries, it?s tough to be all they can be.
From spinal injuries to amputations, many are left
disabled, scared and hopeless. But more and more are
flocking to their local veterans? association
swimming pools to help them forget the pain and
begin the healing process.
?Once they get in ? they don?t
want to get out,? said Mary Wykle, Ph.D., founder
of MW Associates in Burke, Va.
In fact, soldiers of all stripes are using aquatic
therapy to heal and strengthen themselves, and many
veterans? associations are turning their swimming
pools into aquatic therapy centers.
?It?s in high demand,? said
Sandra Wollerton, therapeutic recreation assistant at the
VA North Texas Healthcare System in Dallas.
?I?m waterlogged. I treat anywhere from 75
to 100 a day.? Her center even has a waiting
Wollerton is one of many aquatic therapists taking
veteran patients into the 92-degree pools to move, exercise
and, in some cases, learn to swim again.
The patients range in age from recent veterans returning
from Iraq and Afghanistan to older ones from Korea and
Vietnam. As a result, their needs vary from patient to
patient, and every one of them is referred by a
For example, the therapists at Walter Reed Army Medical
Center in Washington, D.C., work with a large number of
amputees, Wykle said. ?They can do so much more
that?s in balance in the water. They do a lot of
range of motion, balance, strength training and
cardiovascular in the water.?
Amputees don?t start therapy until their
injuries have been treated and they?re in good
condition. Wollerton teaches many to swim again, even
trains them for the upcoming National Veterans Wheelchair
Games in July. Her therapy programs usually run for six
weeks, with two 45-minute sessions each week.
On the other hand, physical therapist supervisor Curtis
Ivins works mostly with older veterans who suffer from
chronic conditions, such as spinal complaints and
?It?s a very comfortable environment,
low-stress on their spine or joints,? said the
supervisor of physical and occupational therapy at the VA
Salt Lake City Health Care Center.
Many of his patients come in approximately two or three
times a week for anywhere from two weeks to a year, he
said. They learn the exercises on their own, then take them
back to practice in their own community pools.
Wollerton also works with a growing number of older
veterans, who are fighting obesity and diabetes. By putting
them in the water and teaching them to walk and move again,
they are losing weight and increasing their strength and
range of motion, she said.
The water not only soothes joints, but also eases their
minds, she added. Some patients have a fear of water either
from a near-drowning experience or because they never
learned to swim. But after six weeks, she said,
?they beg me not to discharge them.?
Sometimes a soldier requires a few tries before
he?ll get in the water, Wykle said. No one is ever
forced to enter, but some require the help of at least two
therapists before they gain balance and control.
But as the army emphasizes, it?s the team effort
that makes the therapy so rewarding.
?They?re in a group environment with
peers some younger ones, but also vets from
Vietnam, which is another era [that has] so many
similarities,? Wollerton said. ?They can
help each other.?
Ivins agreed: ?There?s a strong social
component and good friendships within those groups.
It?s very healthy and a good part of our