When Armando Hernandez (’14, Exercise Science) left the Marine Corps, he faced a challenge. Four years of honorable service took him to Iraq and established a regimen on which he grew to depend. Suddenly, it was gone.
“You go from the extremely structured, well-guided type of lifestyle to not having any of those things,” he said. “It just seems like a really chaotic world. It’s tough.”
He was looking to help himself overcome anxiety, sleepless nights and weight gain – all brought on by a transition to civilian life only service members understand.
“Exercise really helped me,” he said, adding that he anecdotally learned of other methods to help him achieve his new goal – “a sound body and a sound mind.”
In 2016, Hernandez told FGCU360 magazine: “Then I turned on to the nutritional concept and started eating well, and I noticed everything in my life took a turn for the better.”
After earning an associate degree, he enrolled at FGCU as an exercise science major. That program expanded his skillset, connected him with mentors and gave him achievable goals. Which, he says, are “all things veterans are looking for.”
He planned to graduate, start a family and seek a job in the strength and conditioning field. It looked like baseball was the best option. Hernandez got a coveted internship with the Boston Red Sox during the team’s annual spring training stint in Fort Myers. What he didn’t expect was a course correction that would lead him back, in a way, to a life he thought he left.
“My internship supervisor was an Air Force veteran named Mike Roose, and he told me about this program called Home Base,” Hernandez said during a recent interview.
Home Base is “dedicated to healing the invisible wounds for veterans of all eras,” according to the organization’s website. It just so happened that Hernandez’ internship coincided with a plan to expand Home Base services to Southwest Florida. His astute veteran supervisor facilitated a meeting between the intern and Home Base leadership.
“He found out they were looking to start a health and wellness program, and they needed someone to help them launch it. I remember telling them, ‘No. 1: I’m your guy, and No. 2: we’ve got to go to FGCU’s amazing exercise science facility,’” Hernandez said.
The meeting led to the creation of the Southwest Florida Warrior Health and Fitness Program. It’s free to veterans and helps them “improve their physical health and well-being through supervised physical exercise, education about healthy eating, living … stress management and the health benefits of physical activity,” according to the program website. Florida Gulf Coast University is one of two sites offering the sessions.
“I never anticipated that I would work with veterans,” Hernandez said. “It was a phenomenal opportunity. Exercise did a lot for me in my transition, and I thought I could help everyday people feel good through wellness, exercise and a better lifestyle. I never imagined I would get to do that with my peer group of military veterans.”
“It’s been really wonderful working with Armando and the rest of the Home Base leadership locally and in Boston in seeing this program grow from the ground up,” Cordova said. “We’re proud of what Armando’s been able to do with Home Base Southwest Florida, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him and his team.”
Success, growth creates a new challenge
Doing the right thing well brought the Southwest Florida version of Home Base a lot of positive attention. Hernandez estimates more than 500 service members have taken part in the program to date. As the number of veterans the organization serves grew, so did the number of students attending Florida Gulf Coast University. Marieb Hall’s Human Performance Laboratory (the formal name of the exercise science lab) played host to Home Base for the last seven years but was needed by more undergraduates. At the same time, Home Base required more space.
Enter FGCU President Mike Martin.
As he’s shown through his tenure at FGCU, the president doesn’t like roadblocks. He looks for ways to make things work to the benefit of as many people as possible. In this case, his solution included FGCU’s Kleist Health Education Center.
For years, the center welcomed K-12 students to campus to participate in programs that promoted wellness, quality lifestyle choices and healthy environments, among other things. A change in delivery method – taking more of Kleist’s programs to schools instead of bringing children to campus – meant the Kleist Center had room available.
“Home Base now has dedicated space on campus,” said Shawn Felton, Ed.D., interim dean of Marieb College of Health & Human Services. “There is a fully functioning workout facility in the atrium. It also allows us the opportunity to explore areas of physical therapy rehabilitation, moving toward occupational therapy, and we have opportunities to work with the mental health aspects of veterans.”
Felton sees a chance to expand the college’s work with Lee Health, which already collaborates with Home Base.
“We really want to expand this to our local veteran population and the student body and staff as well. We’re looking at incorporating our nurse practitioners and physician assistants in there, maybe providing some primary care. This is a really exciting moment,” Felton added.
Since the creation of Home Base’s Southwest Florida program, Eric Shamus, Ph.D., chair of FGCU’s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, has been there. Hernandez calls his former professor an ally for Home Base. Shamus sees many benefits to Home Base’s new dedicated space on campus.
“With the Kleist Health Education Center, we’re able to double the space for Home Base,” Shamus said. “We’re hoping this will allow for an increased number of veterans to take part in the program. Another benefit to the Kleist Center is that it has its own parking and direct access, which will make it more convenient for veterans to come in and out of the facility.”
Shamus also sees this move to Kleist as the first step toward creating a campus veterans’ center.
“The hope is to create a space where students, faculty and staff who are veterans will have the ability to go there and take advantage of different resources,” he said.
While there is no set timeline for those plans, Hernandez, Felton, Shamus and Cordova are ready to make it happen.
“We’re helping the university and President Martin guide the vision for how the partnership with Home Base can continue to grow as well as be something really extraordinary in the future – not just for Southwest Florida veterans but for the nation to follow,” Cordova said. “We think we’ve got a nice model here – a good partnership with a regional comprehensive university and a very strong foundation in the Home Base organization. We want to make what we have now bigger and more special.”
Hernandez knows the goal will be achieved by a strong partnership that started when he was an undergraduate.
“I 100% credit FGCU with putting me in the right place at the right time to get this job with Home Base,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to work with Home Base and build this phenomenal program if it wasn’t for FGCU’s relationship with the Red Sox.
“I feel proud. I feel humbled. I feel honored that I get to wake up every day and solve the real problems that are facing my brothers and sisters. I get to do it in my hometown, and my alma mater is our partner in this endeavor. It’s all coming together, and this is what I was meant to do.”