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Strong Compass helps veterans readjust to civilian life

Trainer John Moder (right) assists veterans during a workout with Strong Compass, a nonprofit that helps veterans readjust to civilian life. Photo courtesy Strong Compass

Lisa Kaczke

Bringing veterans together to exercise as a group is what Dustin Oosten calls "social medicine."

"The signature trait of the readjustment issues, or even PTSD, is avoidance," said Oosten, a U.S. Army veteran who now works as a readjustment counselor at the Duluth Vet Center. "It's easy for a veteran to isolate and to avoid. I get them into a group with other veterans three times a week, and just the 'social medicine' alone helps the veterans connect and develop a support system within the community, because after they leave active duty, they lose their support system."

What began as an outreach group at the Duluth Vet Center has evolved into Strong Compass, a nonprofit begun by Oosten to help Twin Ports veterans feel in control by calming their minds and bodies as they readjust to civilian life.

Four groups of veterans have cycled through Strong Compass since it began in 2014 and the nonprofit plans to begin the program for the fifth time in January. During the program, veterans meet three times per week at the Superior Douglas County Family YMCA for two eight-week sessions. The first session is an assessment of their nutrition, fitness, sleep and quality of life, and the second session is an individual plan to meet mental, physical and nutritional goals.

Oosten said he finds there's a core group of veterans who are consistent in attending and completing the program because it gives them structure in their lives that they may have lost when they left the military.

Strong Compass is free for veterans and run by volunteers, with its funds entirely going toward the program's operating costs. A spaghetti dinner fundraiser for Strong Compass is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. Saturday at VFW Post 137, 2023 W. Michigan St.

Strong Compass is primarily geared toward post-Sept. 11 veterans who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. But Oosten said they can work with veterans of any age and he plans to expand Strong Compass in the future to include programs to help Cold War-era veterans regain their fitness or help veterans who have diabetes make lifestyle changes.

Veterans can face a range of issues, such as readjusting to life after the military or the trauma of their combat experience, both of which Oosten sees in his job at the Duluth Vet Center.

"Readjustment is, they're on a horse and the horse is in control of the run, and my job is to help them put their feet in the stirrups so they're in control of the run," he said. "Then there's the true trauma, the PTSD, when they're knocked off the horse, laying on their back and they can't get back on the horse. That's a little more complex to get their feet back in the stirrups so they're in control of the run again."

The ultimate goal of Strong Compass is to get veterans to the point where they have self-confidence and feel in control over their lives, Oosten said.

In addition to the workouts, the veterans receive information that includes "Dusty's deep thoughts" — life coaching on topics such as dealing with daily stresses, developing and following through on plans and the effects of pain. A licensed mental health professional, Oosten noted that the veterans have access to him and he can talk before and after the workouts if he notices a veteran having trouble. They also give back to the community to help regain the sense of contribution and mission they had in the military, Oosten said.

Strong Compass focuses on both the mind and body because they can't be separated, he said. He explained that the military trains their brains to be hypervigilant and the brain needs to be retrained after leaving the military. In Strong Compass, they learn to gain control over their bodies first because it teaches the veteran that they have control over something that they think is invisibly controlling them. He noted that a half dozen veterans tried school and bailed due to anxiety, but after completing Strong Compass, they're back in school.

"When they learn that they control their breath, not the exercise controls their breath, they're in control of something," Oosten said. "Life is a painful thing and when we have control over it, we can deal with it. Or when we choose a pain to endure, we can control it and we can endure it. But when we have pain that we felt that we lost control over, then we enter the realm of suffering and that's when things go dark on us. Teaching veterans that they have control over things that they thought they didn't is actually huge and it builds confidence in them."

To learn more

For more information, visit strongcompass.com.

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