Charleston, S.C., Service to country is a lifelong commitment for every U.S. Marine and the moral compass inspiring one Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic employee and veteran to use fitness to educate thousands on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As a computer scientist for SSC Atlantic, Robert Powell spends his work days impacting the wider Department of Defense through his responsibilities with the Marine Corps Enterprise Information Technology Services Enterprise Information Systems upgrade (MCEITS EIS). This program provides IT services and network information assurance to Marine Corps users through a portal framework. Off-duty, however, Powell’s passion for the military community continues through his work as a fitness instructor and volunteer advocate for PTSD support for veterans and their families.
“As a Marine, our motto is ‘Semper Fidelis,’ always faithful,” said Powell. “You are always supporting your fellow Marine. That doesn’t stop when you get out of the military. Knowing there’s a need to help, I felt it was my duty to do it – whatever I could.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 11 to 20 percent of Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans have PTSD in a given year, and that’s just one segment of the veteran population. These statistics hit close to home when Powell’s former classmate, a Marine pilot, committed suicide following a battle with PTSD, a loss that motivated him to take action.
“The more I started talking to people about [PTSD], the more I saw that this is a wider-spread issue than we would like to admit – so I decided I wanted to get involved,” he said.
Today, Powell marries his passion for helping veterans with a love for fitness he developed during his time in the military.
Having served as a communications and information systems officer in the Marines from 1996 to 2004, rigorous physical training was always engrained in Powell’s story. The surprising element, though, is that Powell now uses dance as his fitness platform to raise awareness on PTSD.
Following a sports injury in 2009 that tore his Achilles tendon, Powell started using various cardio workouts to get back into shape, and was approached by friends to take a dance fitness class.
“At first I was reluctant, because I’m a guy and a Marine,” said Powell. “Finally, my friends teamed up on me and I went, and it was the best cardio workout that I’ve had in years. I sweat more than I had in a long time and I had fun, which was the critical part.”
Fast forward to April 2012 and Powell not only actively continued this type of exercise but received his license to teach Zumba, a form of group fitness that combines cardio and dance.
By 2014, Powell and fitness partner Rose Marie Berberena were volunteering to lead two-hour dance fitness marathon events across the country to raise awareness about veteran PTSD and to fund support programs through the non-profit Active Heroes, an organization specializing in working with veterans with PTSD and their families.
“The whole purpose of the marathon is to raise money for the charity and also educate everyone who shows up on what PTSD is, how you can recognize it, what we can do about it, and that it’s something that affects everyone,” he said.
During the events, 8 to 10 instructors lead an interactive dance fitness class– a time that Powell says is more than just fitness.
“In class you forget about your problems, your bills, your worries,” he said. “You just dance for an hour and you are happy that for a lot of veterans and people with depression is therapy.”
During the event attendees also perform a fitness challenge that connects a set number of push-ups to the average daily suicide rate for veterans – a symbolic exercise to reinforce the need for continued education and awareness.
“At the end of the event, we tie it all together and talk about what the event is for, who it benefits, why we are doing this, and then try to motivate people to spread the word in their communities,” said Powell.
Since starting this campaign, Powell and his team have held 12 events across the nation, and because of the impact people have come forward to share their own experience with PTSD and even areas of depression unrelated to veteran service.
“If they feel comfortable talking about it, and some of them say they’ve never said a word before, that’s the first step – recognizing the problem and then seeing the solution – I think I’ve helped in that way,” he said.
Due to the far-reaching impact of Powell and Berberena’s efforts nationwide, both recently received the prestigious Inspiration of the Year Award at an event attended by 7,000 fitness instructors from around the world – influencers that Powell said can now help spread the message about depression and PTSD in their own communities.
Though veteran support is Powell’s passion, one that he says he’ll continue for as long as he’s able, he encourages others to use their own talents and platforms for good.
“Every single one of us has power. If you are passionate about something – truly – people will see that and respond to it,” he said. “I think, individually, the amount of power we have is beyond our imagination. But if you get with a community of people who have that same passion, the amount of power you have is beyond measure.”
SSC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, cyber and information technology capabilities.