Veterans serve up fitness, fun with USTA military tennis program

Free tennis program provides exercise, therapy to veterans

ORLANDO, Fla. – Every Monday night, dozens of veterans and active-duty military personnel meet on the courts at the United States Tennis Association's National Campus in Lake Nona.

Volunteers Jo Wallen, Jason Harnett, Tony Stingley and Jason Allen give pointers and set up activities under the evening lights.

"If you look down across the courts, we have all six courts full of wheelchair athletes, able-bodied athletes -- all veterans just having a good time," Harnett said as he volleyed back and forth with Navy veteran Mike McDowell.

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McDowell came over from the Orlando VA Medical Center, which is less than a mile away.

"It gets me some exercise," McDowell said. "And being around people that are so cool and the people here that are training us to play are just unbelievable. It's a great environment."

The program started three years ago, when the complex first opened, as a way to partner with the nearby VA hospital. The program is open to all military service members and veterans. The clinic is designed to help patients reconnect with everyday activities.

Wallen, the director of adult competition, said the entire volunteer team looks forward to the Monday night classes.

"It's a natural fit," Wallen said. "We love it. I mean, it's our favorite hour of the week by far."

Veteran Henry Pruitt looks forward to it, as well. Pruitt, a Navy veteran, served 20 years, including time during the Vietnam War.

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"I've seen the changes it's made in some of my fellow veterans, the ones who come over from the hospital who had problems with PTSD," Pruitt said. "It's very helpful to the veterans that don't think anyone cares about them. They're not alone."

Pruitt is at the class every week. He said he started coming to the classes as a way to learn the sport and play with his grandchildren. Now, he said, he just enjoys the camaraderie.

"It's more like a brotherhood," Pruitt said. "You come together, you pick on each other but, at the same time, you depend on each other."

All the volunteers were recognized by News 6 anchor Matt Austin as this week's Getting Results Award winners.

At the end of every session, the entire group gathers for a singalong to Lee Greenwood's song, "God Bless the U.S.A."

“Man, it brings goose bumps every week,” Harnett said. “It almost stops the facility. Everyone turns around and they realize that this is a special group.”

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