Program pairing veterans with differently abled kids provides fitness for bright futures
Third-generation Marine Corps veteran Chris Kaag uses a wheelchair as the result a genetic nerve disease called adrenomyeloneuropathy, diagnosed when Kaag was 21 after symptoms developed on a run to get ready for his physical fitness test. The 44-year-old’s legs shake now, too.
But he can shout like his drill instructor did when Kaag was in boot camp and out of shape. Since then, he has dedicated his life to redefining what is possible as a fitness instructor.
“Pick it up!” were his first orders, as he rolled himself to the bottom of a hill during a workout session held at the Wyomissing Hills Memorial Park on April 22 in Berks County, Pa., where Kaag lives with his family and runs a nonprofit called the IM ABLE Foundation.
Kaag was barking at 15 youth, plus volunteer fellow veterans participating in his latest program, Operation Lead from the Front, as they completed four climbs then circled up for 30 minutes of calisthenics and relays.
His business, Corps Fitness, began in 2004. Kaag switched gears to start IM ABLE in 2007 to provide grants for those who need expensive and hard-to-obtain adaptive equipment but do not have the benefits he does as a veteran.
Operation Lead from the Front was added in 2019 to help veterans gain a renewed sense of purpose on the civilian side of life by learning how to assist young people with different cognitive and physical abilities.
Parental praise for the program goes hand-in-hand with praise of Kaag; they all said it has positively impacted their child’s confidence and ability to make friends, since in some cases the child has aged out of school.
Participant Chris Angstadt is a class of 2020 graduate of Daniel Boone High School in Birdsboro, Pa., and even showed up in a cast after three ankle surgeries to put in his time.
“Everyone here picks each other up without any judgment,” said Angstadt’s father, also named Chris.
After Active Duty
Deputy Chris Gorel is a Marine Corps and Army Reserve veteran and works as a K-9 handler for the County of Berks, Pa., sheriff’s office with his canine partner Deputy Vito. He was also a first-time volunteer with Operation Lead from the Front in April.
Gorel got involved with Corps Fitness during a challenge program Kaag held for civil service personnel in 2013 called Call to Action (now known as Operation Badge 27, in memory of a local fallen police officer).
“I was in the best shape of my life,” he said. “I appreciated Chris’ enthusiasm, too, so I didn’t hesitate when he reached out. I am lucky to be here. There are guys like Chris in a chair and from the sniper and Recon communities in the Marines struggling with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I don’t face those battles, so if I can give back, then I believe I should.”
“It’s really so simple,” said Kaag, who believes the veteran community has a valuable perspective to share. “My defining moment [in boot camp] was something I was challenged by, but once it happened, I knew exactly what I was able to accomplish and that I was able to accomplish more. All veterans have gone through similar things, and are very suited to motivate other people.”
Giving Back Bigger
Perhaps no story is a greater example of Kaag’s reaffirmation policy than that of the first pairing made between Marine veteran Alan Coderre and participant Robert DiBona, who wanted to join the military but is unable to serve due the severity of his cerebral palsy.
“I saw Alan at a baseball game,” said Kaag. “He had been dealing with PTSD for years, and I told him to meet me at the gym, where I introduced him to Robert. I simply said it was his responsibility to train him up, and their connection was instantaneous, as if 50 other kids weren’t even in the room.”
IM ABLE Foundation Director of Development Brian Sutherland said not everyone is comfortable stepping in at first, but Kaag doesn’t give up.
“Chris is so generous and sincere that everyone feels it,” he said.
Lead from the Front volunteer and Army veteran Alex Pilkington agreed.
“He makes sure that everyone who shows up can do something,” he said.
Paralympic equestrienne Margaret McIntosh of Reading, Pa., joined IM ABLE prior to competing in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games and is also a product of Kaag’s matching system.
“My trainer was an Afghan war veteran who made me work just as hard as the Corps Fitness participants,” she said. “With real-time encouragement, we drew strength from each other.”
Outside of the gym, Sutherland estimates the program has donated between 50 and 100 handcycles that can cost $2,000 to $10,000. IM ABLE also loans equipment so people can try adaptive riding, which was especially impactful during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Andrew Kutch received a Hase Trigo Nexus recumbent trike last year from the foundation.
“Hard work with my friends is fun,” the 28-year-old said of his outdoor workout in April.
At the end of the day, Kaag’s demeanor turns from the drill instructor he dreamed of being into more of the father he is to his son, Carter, with wife Gretchen. Each session concludes with a big dance party before participants depart.
“These veterans and kids get such an empowering feeling from interacting together in a workout, and when I see that, then the whole purpose of what we are trying to do is realized,” Kaag said.
To volunteer for Operation Lead From the Front, visit: https://imablefoundation.org. The foundation’s Got The Nerve Triathlon and fundraiser will be Sept. 18-19, 2021.