With an emphasis on fitness, not fighting, Veterans are getting healing.
By Evan Bleier
Located under the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge on the Brooklyn side of the East River, Gleason’s Gym has been the home of some of boxing’s most famous fighters since 1937.
Jake LaMotta, Roberto Duran, and Mike Tyson are a few of the Hall of Famers to work out in Gleason’s. Before his first fight against Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, used Gleason’s for part of his training. Inside the 14,000-square-foot facility, hangs a quotation from The Aeneid, by the poet Virgil: “Now, whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.”
After demonstrating their courage, strength, and spirit on the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, and everywhere in between, New York City-area veterans have begun journeying to Gleason’s to meet the challenge posed in the second part of Virgil’s quote as part of the Veterans in the Ring program.
“We want to shift people’s reliance on only coming to the VA hospital for help,” says Jonathan Glasberg, the Department of Veterans Affairs prosthetics clinical coordinator. “Here, you’re doing a healthy activity in the community. Many studies show participating in adaptive sports — getting someone with some limitation to take part in sporting, healthful activities — leads to an improved quality of life. Lessened mood disturbances, improved coping skills — having sports in someone’s life plan isn’t just fun and games; it promotes general health and wellness.”
The program initially conceived in October 2014, had its opening bell sounded in March 2015 after its parameters were worked out by Gleason’s owner and retired Vietnam war vet Bruce Silverglade and Glasberg. Offered entirely free of charge to veterans who’ve obtained medical clearance to participate, the co-ed program allows ex-military service members to receive custom training sessions two days a week. Under the terms of the deal, no money is exchanged between the Department of Veterans Affairs and Gleason’s. However, the former provides medical clearance, access to the vets, and promotional services, while the latter offers the training.
Presided over by David Murray, a former Golden Gloves boxer with more than 32 years of experience, the individual training sessions focus on the Boxer’s Workout, an exercise method that accentuates conditioning as opposed to what a participant can do with his or her fists. Participants do use the heavy bags, speed bags, and other standard boxing equipment that fill the gym. But the VR program’s emphasis is on fitness, not fighting.
“They do all the things that boxers do except fight. They stay in shape, and it relieves some stress for them. One or two like to spar, but they generally don’t,” Murray said. “They talk and laugh and speak with other vets and get along with each other. We accommodate what they want to do and the speed they want to do it. They like it.”
Since the training sessions are usually one-on-one or limited to a group of two, the vets in the program don’t have to worry about dealing with large groups or getting lost in the shuffle. They know they will be getting individualized attention from Murray. Since they can come to the gym whenever they’d like, it’s quite common for Murray to see some of this training pupils working out on their own on days when they don’t have a scheduled session with him.
“Most of them will see each other a little bit here, a little bit there,” Murray says. “There’s a sense of camaraderie. Sometimes you’ll have someone from the Army talking to someone from the Navy because they were stationed in the same place. They like talking, but that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is to work out and get their heart pumping. Relieve some stress.”
That’s the sort of positive impact Glasberg had in mind for former soldiers when he was designing the program with Silverglade. As it turns out, the vets who take part in the program aren’t the only ones who benefit. “The most rewarding part for me is to tell a veteran to come train at Gleason’s Gym for free and to join our team. The surprise and pleasure on their faces are enough for me,” Silverglade adds. “Gleason’s Gym has a long history of working with and developing champions, and the veterans are already champions in our eyes.”