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Training Veterans to Care for Themselves

Compliments of: The Veterans Affairs

by Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer
  • A group of Veterans practice Tai Chi exercises with a woman leader.

Crane takes flight: Learning to come home to the body with mindful awareness.

Kristi Rietz helps Veterans living with chronic conditions — pain…illness…stress — to put healthy things back into their lives and not make their illness the center of their life.

She is an occupational therapist in the Wellness Program at the Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wis.

Kristi explains, “Wellness is approaching people as a whole person. What do they think would be a satisfying full life? We help people gain the skills they need to be able to do that. It’s approaching people from the perspective of what do they want out of life?”

Her Wellness Program calendar is full, with options for Veterans like the Eight-Week Wellness Series which includes Tai Chi Fundamentals), Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Positive Psychology and Wellness Recovery Action Planning where Veterans make a personal plan for their wellness and recovery.

Wellness Programs Help Relieve Stress

The outpatient Wellness Program provides training in natural stress relief and health improvement practices for Veterans and their families. Classes offer education and practice in stress management techniques that build focus, attention, and memory, as well as improved sleep, decreased stress, overall health, and increased well-being.

April is Occupational Therapy Month. Read more about VA Wellness Programs.

Kristi knows the Wellness approach works, saying, “It works for me!” But as she explains to Veterans new to the program, “It takes courage. It takes a commitment to practice self-care. We’re talking about changing habit patterns.

“That came up in a recent class. Someone said ‘Why should I be doing this? I really want to be home with my family and my children.’ Fortunately, other Vets will speak up and tell how it has really helped them.”

…what she was learning was having such a profound and positive impact on her family

Participants in her Wellness Program learn simple, effective, and powerful techniques to feel energized and focused, and how to reduce stress or pain. Recent research suggests that certain mind-body practices may be helpful for different medical conditions including: sleep disturbances, balance problems, low bone density, arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, breast cancer, addictions, obesity, fatigue, reduced strength, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

An female Occupational Therapist raises the arms of a Veteran in a Tai Chi exercise.Kristi Rietz practices Mindful Awareness with Veteran Karl Gutknecht: Practicing focused attention and postural alignment.

Kristi describes one example of how her Tai Chi Fundamentals classes helped a Veteran in pain.

“One young woman lived with great pain from a serious injury to her feet while she was in the military. After taking our courses, her life absolutely changed. Even her kids’ teachers asked her ‘What have you done? Your kids are just a joy to have in class now.’

“She was so excited because what she was learning was having such a profound and positive impact on her family. I love to hear those stories. It makes me feel very good. And I’m very happy to share these successes with other people.

Kristi knows the Wellness program is different for a lot of Veterans.

“We have referrals from the pain clinic. The doctor wants them to try a Wellness approach. But it’s human nature for some people to think, to hope, that some medical procedure or some kind of medicine will take their problem away.

“Sometimes, seeing others Veterans participating in one of our classes encourages them.”

A Veteran holds the arm of a female Occupational Therapist in a Tai Chi exercise.Veteran Brendan Conaway learns from Kristi Rieitz how practicing mindful awareness positively impacts stress and pain management

Tai Chi One of Many Programs Helping Veterans

Kristi encourages Veterans to try the Tai Chi Fundamentals Program and Yoga classes, explaining, “Tai Chi and Yoga are mindfulness practices of being rather than doing. It’s a whole different way of approaching our bodies and our minds. I particularly find the Tai Chi Fundamentals program so helpful, because it trains focused attention, mindful awareness, active relaxation, and postural alignment in functional movement so the applications to daily living are inherent in the practice itself.

“That’s one of the most helpful things we can teach our Veterans. If something unpleasant is happening we have a tendency to want to avoid or ignore it. Tai Chi and Yoga help us learn how to stay with the experience.

“As soon as we can put that pause into our lives, we can actually stop and turn towards the experience and get really serious about it. You’ve already made a significant change.”

Kristi comes to her dedication from observing others caring for Veterans. “When I was looking for a new job experience, I was so impressed with the Veteran hospital clinicians I met, so amazed with their dedication and the hope they had for the people they were working with. I said I want to work with these people. And of course, the Veterans just won me over. The VA has provided such a wonderful opportunity to share practices that I have found to be so beneficial with Veterans and their families.”


Photos by: Jeffrey Root, Senior Medical Photographer, Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, Madison, Wisconsin.

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About Edited by Susan Bainbridge

At age 6, Susan was destined to be a journalist and photographer.  In 1980, Susan founded Bainbridge News and The Bainbridge Chronicle Newspaper. Bainbridge News specializes in Military and National Politics, including Military Funerals and Burials and Political Funerals and Burials.  Susan has covered the White House, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. She has covered every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. Recognized for her versatility, Susan has also covered finance, crime, civil rights events, marches, sports, musical events and more. In 1990, she established Bainbridge Photography, an On-Location photography company. In addition to military and political events, including Military and Political funerals and burials, Bainbridge Photography expanded into covering ALL funerals and burials, receptions, weddings, real estate, inventory, insurance, portrait, head shot, pets, fire and Hazmat.  Miss Bainbridge believes in going the extra mile. "My Clients always come first." In 1980, Susan began her career in Washington, D.C., working for WMZQ Radio as a reporter and guest hostess from 1980 to 1985. Intrigued by radio, Susan wanted to write, freelancing for radio, television and print newspapers, including AP, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Northern Virginia Sun, The Press-Republican and The Bainbridge Chronicle (established by Susan Bainbridge). In 1986, Susan worked at WDCA-TV Channel 20 as a guest hostess for "Eye On Washington." From 1990 to 1994, Susan reported and anchored for "The Arlington Weekly News." Additionally, she produced a segment for the G. Gordon Liddy Radio Show. A prolific writer, while in high school in 1977, Bainbridge wrote an episode for NBC's "Little House on The Prairie" entitled "Laura's Best Friend." Though the show's producers did not use the script then, NBC producers encouraged Susan to pursue a writing and journalism career. Susan is a member of the National Press Club, the National Press Photographer's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Susan Bainbridge's recognitions include from former Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton, former First Lady Nancy Reagan, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the late actor Lorne Greene, among many others. BAINBRIDGE NEWS was founded in 1980 by Susan Bainbridge (a sixth generation writer), a third generation journalist, a first generation photographer and a fourth generation entrepreneur. She is the first generation to establish a news business. Bainbridge News is dedicated in honor of Miss Bainbridge's late grandfather and idol, Mark S. Watson (The Baltimore Sun editor and war correspondent from 1920 to his death in 1966).

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