Veterans find camaraderie, much more at nonprofit CrossFit gym

The three military veterans steadied themselves. Bending down, they picked up 35- and 45-pound barbells and lifted them over their heads for 30 seconds.

“Keep that core tight,” Nick McCombs, their instructor, said as “Stolen Dance” by Milky Chance blared in the background of Branded One CrossFit.

“How does that feel?” McCombs asked.

“It’s all about being uncomfortable,” Elizabeth Higgins, 39, said.

Branded One, which opened July 4 in Henderson, provides disabled police, fire and military veterans with free memberships. The nonprofit CrossFit gym has six veteran and 15 regular members, with all proceeds going back to the gym and to funding the free programs.

“We all have scars,” said McCombs, who opened the gym with his fiancee, Whitney Short. The two thought of the plan about five years ago, and while neither served in the military, they’ve always had a soft spot for the those who do, McCombs said. “Veterans have been branded by their scars.”

McCombs, who has practiced CrossFit for about seven years, has earned his Level 2 certification.

Chuck Baker, a Purple Heart recipient and Vietnam War veteran, recently joined the gym, McCombs said. Baker lost part of his leg in a grenade explosion. McCombs tailors each workout to the veterans’ abilities.

“I want to push them to the edge and make them uncomfortable,” he said, “without pushing them too far.”

Stephen Plichta, 35, was at the Veterans Affairs office for an appointment when he saw a flyer for the gym. The six-year Army veteran is going to school to become a personal trainer and was looking for a way to get back into cardio and build strength. A recent Thursday was his second time at the gym. While Plichta was stationed in Iraq, his eardrum was blown out from blasts. He also has post-traumatic stress disorder.

He said he felt overwhelmed upon returning to the U.S. in December 2007.

“Civilian life is chaotic,” Plichta said. “There’s no structure. (At the gym) , it’s a way to get rid of all the negative energy.”

While battling depression, Plichta was charged with driving under the influence a couple times, he said. He started drinking and using drugs to cope with his PTSD.

“I’d rather be addicted to this,” he said, referring to CrossFit. “This is a great opportunity for vets who are in a low or dark place in their life.”

That same Thursday was 10-year Navy veteran Leah Elmquist’s first time at the gym. She joined Higgins and one other veteran for the 6:30 p.m. class.

“I’ll be back,” she said after she stretched her legs in a lunge position. The 35-year-old worked in construction while she was in the Navy but suffered a head injury after an assault five years ago, she said. The assault was unrelated to her military service. Her injury causes her to become tired and dehydrated, she said. On Nov. 5, she’ll be in New York City to run her first marathon since the assault.

Next to her, Higgins, 39, leaned over and grabbed the jump ropes. In 10 minutes, she would see how many reps she could do of 30 jumps and lifting the barbells. She was the gym’s first member in March. She trained in her garage before the gym opened. Now, the Air Force veteran works out at least four times a week and has dropped to 159 pounds from 179 pounds during that time. More importantly, she said, joining the gym allowed her to work through her disabilities.

In six years in the Air Force, some of that time in Iraq, she worked in security forces. She carried heavy equipment as part of her duties, which led to long-term problems. She has torn a tendon in her shoulder, which still causes pain; she has carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrists, neck pain, and PTSD, which has kept her isolated from the world made her feel trapped, she said.

The exercise at Branded One has helped.

“It gets me active,” she said. “(McCombs) scales the workout to my needs.” If Higgins’ shoulder starts popping, McCombs tries different exercises to work the same kind of muscles.

Higgins said she misses her time in the military, but the camaraderie of CrossFit helped fill the void.

“It’s like when you’re working out in the military,” she said. “This makes me feel whole again.”

In the corner of the gym, McCombs’ 1-year-old dog, Skyla, barked and wagged her tail as the group exercised. On the other side, Gary Bartusch, who works in maintenance at the Hoover Dam, took a break.

The Army veteran was stationed in Hawaii in the early 1990s, working in a field artillery unit. One day, he was working on a howitzer (a short cannon for firing shells) when it unexpectedly fired, and the kickback caused lacerations to his arm and broke his right wrist. He wasn’t able to do pushups or pass a physical.

He was skeptical when Higgins invited him to try CrossFit a little over a month ago.

“I (didn’t) know if I can do any of that,” he said.

Now he can do activities involving his arm more easily, he said, and his stamina has improved.

“I’m surprised every day with what I do,” the 45-year-old said. He has lost 10 pounds since joining.

The injuries to his wrist still cause him to lose grip and to have tingling or numbing sensations. During this workout, Bartusch used boxes to steady himself as he did kickbacks.

As he prepared to lift a barbell over his head, he wiped the sweat from his forehead.

“I feel like I can do more,” he said. “I want to do more. I wish I could do better.”

Contact Briana Erickson at or 702-387-5244. Follow @brianarerick on Twitter.

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