Former CIA director addresses veteran support, fitness

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By Michael Sugerman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 2, 2014

Former CIA Director David Petraeus touted physical fitness as an outlet for both physical and mental health Friday at the fifth annual dinner held by the University’s Student Veterans of America chapter in the Union ballroom.

During his speech, Petraeus commended the University for the work it has done to accommodate veterans by providing in-state tuition and preferred registration to all former soldiers. He added that that Michigan maintained a “rich tradition of military service” since the Civil War, when Michiganders were some of the first to volunteer for the Union army in Virginia.

Petraeus said soldiers returning from war feel that they have left their brothers and sisters behind, and that many veterans have both physical and mental wounds from their time in service. Both of these issues, he said, mean veterans have a hard time assimilating back into their home communities.

Petraeus said group fitness can be therapeutic for veterans, as it parallels the pack motivation used in combat. He added that, as a paratrooper, he felt that for individuals to be physically and mentally tough was essential to the pack’s success.

“Exercise not only trains the body to be physically resilient, it also helps our hearts, lungs and muscles learn to cope more effectively with the tension and emotion of particularly stressful times,” Petraeus said.

For this reason, he always tried to set aside a time to go running during limited downtime in combat. He would often run with captains and majors to get their perspective on issues at hand. Later on, as the director of the CIA, he established the “Run with the Director” program as means to meet his staff.

“If you want to get the truth, run with someone for five, six or seven miles, during which candor increases with each passing mile,” he said.

Petraeus added that Team RWB’s group dynamic is a recipe for success because it allows for individuals to set goals and the group to monitor each individual’s progress.

“To live as fully as we might, we must constantly challenge ourselves to make the most of our God-given talents,” he said. “We have to set ambitious, albeit achievable goals, and importantly, we need to share them with friends, family, colleagues and bosses and then do our best to achieve them.”

He said this mentality is applicable everywhere — for exercise, academics, relationships, faith and even the workplace. At the end of Petraeus’ speech, Erwin awarded him with a special, Team RWB bitcoin.

Prior to Petraeus’ speech, LSA senior Tim Nellett, SVA secretary, said the organization is an outlet for student veterans to bond and push each other to be great. He added that SVA has helped him transition from being a marine to a student.

“Don’t do it alone,” Nellett said. “In this way, the SVA has been instrumental in connecting veterans together to find that sense of camaraderie we were all missing.”

Team Red, White & Blue, a nonprofit organization that employs veterans to facilitate fitness, received the funds raised for the event. University alum Mike Erwin, a US Army Major, created the foundation and was one of the opening speakers for Petraeus on Friday.

“Physical activity has been engineered out of life over the past 20 to 25 years,” Erwin said. “We need a segment of our population that wants to take that challenge and help fix it. That’s where we’re looking long term. Veterans are leaders. Veterans have more training in physical fitness than any other segment of the population. In due time you’re going to see us continue to develop that leadership in our chapters.”

Engineering senior Josh Simister, SVA chapter president and former Marine, opened the event by announcing the group’s next president, LSA junior Will Kerkstra. Although the night’s main agenda was to celebrate the importance of physical fitness and its importance to student veterans, there were also some somber moments.

As part of his introductory speech, Simister pointed to an empty table in the front of the ballroom. The table represented troops who are prisoners of war or missing in action.

Simister held back tears as he explained how each component on the table represented something: a lemon to symbolize these soldiers’ “bitter fate,” roses to symbolize their bloodshed and a candle that stood for the “light of hope that lives in our hearts.”

After the event, Simister ended on a positive note. He said that SVA met its fundraising goal for the first time in the dinner’s existence and expressed his gratitude to the University for helping to coordinate the event.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misidentified Tim Nellett as an LSA junior, SVA's treasurer and a soldier. Nellett is an LSA senior, SVA's secretary and a Marine.