For as long as there has been an army — and maybe longer — there have been wounded warriors. But today, thanks to two new pilot programs, those brave men and women are finding a new way back to health through aquatic therapy and exercise. If successful, aquatics could become a major part of the U.S. Army’s rehabilitation operations and perhaps even spur greater participation among the civilian population.

Mary Wykle, Ph.D., is the driving force behind the programs, along with Col. Barbara Springer, LTC Nikki Butler and Janet Papazis. Dr. Wykle is an expert in the field and has worked with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Wykle said the program has two parts: aquatic rehabilitation for soldiers still undergoing physical or occupational therapy and an Aquatic Warrior Exercise program. The latter is designed to help those with continued limitations rebuild strength and fitness/readiness so they can resume regular unit training. Both curriculums were designed to deal primarily with musculoskeletal injuries, though the neurological and psychological impact of traumatic brain injuries and PTSD also were accounted for.”

“We’re trying to mimic their land-based physical training,” Wykle said.

Currently several measures — including surveys, pain indexing, and physical fitness and

ability testing — are being used to track progress and gauge effectiveness. If the pilot is successful, the Army is expected to adopt the program on a larger scale.

“The goal is to develop a standard program [to create continuity between all locations],” said LTC Butler, Allied health staff officer for health policy and services at the Office of the Army Surgeon General. “If this works, the plan would be to roll it out sequentially ... over a couple of years.”

Butler said she’s received great feedback so far from staff and participants. For wounded soldiers, she said aquatic rehab is helpful because it allows for exercise without weight-bearing stress on injuries. It also helps increase core strength, which is particularly important in getting wounded warriors back to regular duty.

Research shows the process of immersion also reduces pain, which may mean the soldiers could need less pain medication, added Dr. Bruce Becker, a longtime proponent of aquatic therapy and director of the National Aquatic & Sports Medicine Institute at Washington State University.

Looking beyond the military, he and Wykle believe that if the program is successful, it could spur interest in aquatic rehabilitation for civilians as well.

“What we’re trying to do is promote the important healing properties of aquatic therapy and exercise,” Wykle said.