Boxing club has become a healing outlet for veterans
By DIANA NELSON JONES | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: July 6, 2019
BADEN, Pa. (AP) — Brandy Horchak-Jevsjukova jokes that she is Tyshie Wagner's service dog.
A veteran's service dog is trained to lean into her to provide comfort, to stand watch behind her, to jump up or paw her to interrupt a crisis.
Brandy has leaned into Tyshie persistently since they met in 2017, when Tyshie was almost 400 pounds, terrified of leaving her house, and imagining — and once attempting — suicide. She had gone through several therapists and had a husband who was at his wits' end.
Cutting through the chronology of their story, we arrive at the Warrior's Call Boxing Club in Baden, Beaver County, one recent morning.
Brandy and her husband, Vitali Jevsjukova, whom everyone calls "V," opened the club in 2015 to be the help to veterans that boxing had been for them during their military service in Iraq.
Brandy pulls on a pair of flat mitts. Tyshie, who has dropped 200 pounds since she first arrived at the club in 2017, is wearing gloves.
They spar, moving from one side of the gym to the other and back, Brandy calling sequences, moving her mitts accordingly to catch jabs, punches or uppercuts. Tyshie's face is a mask of concentration.
"Up high, come on, Tysh," Brandy says. "Good. Two minutes. Hook! Get it, get it, come on, hard Tysh, harder. Good!" She huffs. "Whew! Uppercut, good, walk it out, Tysh, walk it."
After a 45-minute session, Tyshie collapsed on a bench, took a swig of water, wiped her face and drew a deep breath.
"In therapy, sometimes, you can't focus," Brandy said, "but with this, you have to. I change the sequence on her, so she has to concentrate."
She asked Tyshie what she had planned for the rest of her day.
"I'm going to go tanning. Then I'll go home and water my plants. Then I'll go outside and talk to the girls" — neighbors on the front stoops. "That is a big deal for me."
'I was drowning'
Boxing isn't for every veteran who needs an outlet, but for those it does help, it is a testament to the power of physical activity in improving mental health.
For veterans with severe anxiety, trauma-related stress and distrust, though, the camaraderie that others find in a boxing gym may be too much noise and chaos. Tyshie, 52, goes when she thinks no one else will be there.
She served as a combat medic in the Army in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005.
Before she met Brandy, she was seeing therapist Michael Zimmerman, a Marine veteran, at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Butler. Michael drove to Butler because Tyshie wasn't likely to make the drive to the Green Tree Vet Center, where he worked. He became acquainted with Brandy and Vitali when he tried out their club.
"Tysh was progressing really well," Michael said. "We were moving through the hallway, to the cafeteria and eventually outside. I realized she lives in Baden, Brandy and V are in Baden, and Brandy is a female veteran with her own experiences."
He became sold on Brandy's ability to be the buddy Tyshie needed as he was stepping away.
"Her personality is vibrant, very open and positive," he said. "But deeper, her experience with Air Force security forces and her deployment made her seem like a logical resource."
"Michael brought me to Brandy on March 29, 2017," Tyshie said. "He said, 'I know these two people who could do wonders for you.' I was scared, like a rat on a sinking ship. But Brandy asked me to trust her, and now, I couldn't ask for a better friend."
Tyshie was adamant at first: No boxing.
"I went to the gym and turned around to leave, and Brandy said, 'I'll see you tomorrow.' I said 'We'll see,' and she said, 'There's no 'We'll see.' I'll be at your door tomorrow.' Deep down, I did need to be pushed. I was drowning with no light above the water. Brandy took my hand and said, 'You're better than this.' "
The two started out just walking, a few minutes at a time. Last August, Tyshie finished a 5K fundraising event put on by Warrior's Call.
"She let me know that she walked the entire 5K," Michael said. "I thought it was cool that she let me know that. She has put a ton of work into herself. Certain things you live with forever, that no amount of time or therapy are going to alleviate. But having positive experiences, a structured outlook and a trusted companion has made the difference for her.
Like a magic skill
Brandy, 41, an Ambridge native, met Vitali, 44, in Iraq.
She served as a heavy weapons gunner in Air Force security. He was an assistant gunner, a native Latvian with coalition forces in Iraq, and in Bosnia before that.
He is now a U.S. citizen. He and Brandy are raising three children, ages 10, 8 and 6. Brandy calls him "my assistant gunner in life."
When she was suffering from her own trauma and anxiety — "depressed, angry all the time, on all kinds of medications, edgy" — it was he who leaned into her, nudging her.
"V said, 'We need to find you an outlet,' " she said. "I remember that I had liked boxing.'"
She went to a boxing gym and felt an immense sense of joy. "Holy cow, it was like it was a magic skill I had," she said. "I was working at Nova Chemicals at the time, and one day I said to V, 'We're going to quit our jobs and do a boxing club for veterans.' "
On a stretch of Duss Avenue, they found a building that had been the Last Chance Saloon. Vitali had worked in construction before he joined Brandy in their venture, so he put his skills to work renovating their building.
Warrior's Call created a model to integrate veterans and first responders — police officers, firefighters and 911 dispatchers — with civilians. Memberships are free for veterans whose disabilities are service related and for first responders; they're half off for people on active duty and in the reserves.
Ben Gingerella, a Marine veteran from Ambridge, arrived at the gym for his first boxing class in May. He was the only veteran in the 5 p.m. class. Now a letter carrier, he spent four years in the service, 2002 to 2006, including time in Iraq.
Vitali partnered with Ben during a strenuous hour-long class in which about 15 people went through various drills of stretching, bouncing and jabbing before hitting the bags. He and Ben sparred, jabbing alternately right to the other's left, with V changing the pace and the direction. The intent was to land glove on glove, a gentle exercise in paying attention.
"Someone told me it's a great thing for veterans," Ben said afterward, sweat flying off his beard. "I like doing the treadmill at home, but I came here basically to get in shape. I wrestled growing up, and there's nothing like that kind of workout."
Civilian memberships subsidize operations and support Brandy and Vitali's nonprofit, Will of the Warrior. The couple's hope is to find 100 acres on which to build a retreat to accommodate opportunities for camaraderie beyond the boxing club. They already have two pontoon boats for veterans and first responders to use for a day or a weekend.
"I think counseling is important," Brandy said. "It's like getting a tuneup for your vehicle. But the community is key in our gym. You can't expect the VA to do everything. When your life is falling apart, you need help ASAP. We can respond to veterans' needs as their community."
'They saved my life'
Tyshie was the only woman, a sergeant, in her unit. Her brothers-in-arms did not have her back, she said, and their combatants, Afghani men, often targeted women.
"The whole time I was there, people tried to kill me. I had to search the civilian women, but men would dress as women and throw explosives. I was shot at more times than I can count," she said.
How do you cope?
"You don't, you just suck it up and shut up, you're in the infantry."
After 16 years of service, she was medically discharged. She had had a gun in her mouth before being airlifted by medical helicopter to Germany for evaluation.
Upon her return to Baden, when she weighed 115 pounds, she said she wanted her psychiatrist "to give me the magic pill that would take away the nightmares and 'daymares.' "
She shook violently when she ventured outside, so she stayed in.
"I couldn't open the back door because my hands shook so bad. My husband did all the shopping. I had my back to this wall," she said during an interview in her living room. "I didn't leave my house for 12 years."
She and her husband, Don, also a veteran, have been married for 28 years. Her inner turmoil caused them harm as a couple, so they sought marriage counseling with Michael Zimmerman, the therapist who eventually would turn the tables on Tyshie's hauntings.
Michael is now director of psychological health services for the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon. He has worked with veterans who were in combat, who parachuted into enemy territory, who earned Silver Stars and Purple Hearts, he said, "but it takes a special kind of courage to tell someone, 'I think there's something wrong and I need help.' I cannot stress enough the amount of courage it takes for a veteran to seek help. When they walk in the door for the first time, I tell them 'You just did the hardest part.' "
Tyshie is now off all 23 antipsychotic drugs she was taking, she said. She doesn't feel so compelled to go to the gym regularly.
"When I don't see her, I buddy check her," Brandy said. "I have lost six sergeants to suicide, people I was deployed with, and I know how dark it gets."
Tyshie, who has become active in the Women's Club and the American Legion in Baden, said she wanted her story told in case it might give any veteran in grief or despair a sense that things can get better. Asking for help, she got a lifeline.
"They changed my life," she said of Brandy and Vitali. "They saved my life. You can never repay somebody for that."