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Branded One
Photography by Christopher Smith

Building Muscle, Rebuilding Lives

Desert Companion

Branded One CrossFit gym specializes in serving disabled veterans. But physical fitness is only part of the regimen

Exercise was Jimmy Hardy’s way of coping with the PTSD from his time in Iraq. “A lot of things that I did for fitness and stress relief was exercising and running,” says Hardy, an Army veteran who deployed from Germany to Iraq in 2006 and 2008. After his four years in the service, he was put in the reserves from 2009 to 2013, and was assigned to a Las Vegas chemical unit.

His motorcycle was his other form of stress relief. In 2012, while Hardy was riding toward the intersection of Flamingo and Decatur, a car made a U-turn in front of him. Hardy hit the car’s back panel on the driver’s side at 52 miles per hour. He lost his right leg, suffered a compound fracture in his right arm, tore his stomach open, and punctured his liver and kidney.

“When I lost my leg, I lost the ability to vent (through exercise) and do those kinds of things. For the first couple of years, it was really hard for me to cope and I ended up gaining a bunch of weight,” he says. “I did the last year and a half of the reserves as an amputee. I went into a darker place, mentally and physically. I got in trouble with the military because of my attitude. I didn’t give up completely, because I still participated the best that I could, but at the same time I didn’t have that ‘care’ attitude.”

Hardy’s first workout at Branded One CrossFit at age 32 was a reminder of what he had been missing. It wasn’t easy.

“I wasn’t able to do the workout on the first day. If I remember correctly, it was pull-ups and snatches, but I couldn’t do any of those motions. I was still trying to learn my prosthesis.” But the coach was able to adapt everything to Hardy’s abilities and show him that he was capable of whatever he put his mind to.

You wouldn’t expect such personalized attention at your average gym, but Branded One CrossFit is anything but average. At first glance, it looks typical enough: There are plenty of pull-up bars, rowing machines, and weights. But the walls are adorned with U.S. flags and military memorabilia, which reflect a deeper mission. Branded One is a gym that specializes in assisting service men and women with disabilities — not as a business model, but as a community service.

Support comes from

“I saw a need for a gym offering assistance for the mental and physical health of veterans with disabilities,” says owner Nick McCombs, who opened the gym in 2016. “Some of the members wouldn’t have been able to afford to come to a CrossFit gym because they may live paycheck to paycheck with the money they get from the government. It’s enough money to live, but just barely. It’s not enough for them to really take care of themselves.”

Nick Combs, Branded One’s owner

Nick Combs, Branded One’s owner

McCombs offers free memberships to service people, including law enforcement, firefighters, military, and first responders, whether they have a disability or not. “It’s not about the ability they used to have, it’s about where they are right now and keeping them safe,” McCombs says.

As a nonprofit, Branded One relies on community donations and paid memberships, which allows it to offer free memberships to service people. The free memberships account for about half of Branded One’s 100 memberships. The coaches create workouts that can be readily modified to fit all ability levels. All members are expected to do the same “workout of the day,” but for members with disabilities, modifications are usually a must. Hardy had gained about 40 pounds after his motorcycle accident, but after developing a modified workout regimen at Branded One, he saw his strength level go up and his weight go down.

“When it comes to challenges of overcoming my physical disabilities, I always have an issue because I did these exercises, like push-ups, pull-ups, and running before I was an amputee. When I get in the zone, I always forget I have an amputation because I mentally go back to when I was in the military and was pushing through it. I will try and do a squat or bend down for a push-up, and because I can’t bend down on my right side, I kind of stumble.”

Hardy persisted through the challenges, and today he calls his membership to Branded One a “gamechanger.” “After just going for two or three weeks, they helped me adapt to a lot of the different exercises, which I thought were pretty amazing. (Coach) Jeremy Leonard showed me a level of competitiveness and what I can achieve.”

Gym owner McCombs had that mental factor in mind just as much when he started the gym. He’s aware of the high rate of suicide and prevalence of mental health issues in the veteran community.

For member Elizabeth Freeman, working out has been crucial in coping with the mental aftermath of military service. She joined the Air Force at 23 and was active for six years, deploying as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom for nine months.

Members such as Elizabeth Freeman, right, can work on injuries that aren’t always visible.

Members such as Elizabeth Freeman, right, can work on injuries that aren’t always visible.

“I’m a 42-year-old female, but when I got out of the Air Force, I was 28. People don’t want to believe that I am a veteran. I don’t have any noticeable physical injuries. The majority of my injury is PTSD. I’ve had a lot of judgment in my life, even from other veterans.” She was the first veteran to receive a membership from Branded One after McCombs partnered with an organization in which Freeman was active, Team Red, White, and Blue, which encourages physical activity as a way of connecting veterans to their communities. Freeman has been going to Branded One ever since.

“What is nice about Branded One and Team RWB is that they aren’t expecting you to be a broken-down veteran,” she says. “They both understand that veterans suffer from invisible injuries. I don’t feel judgment from people I meet in those organizations. Having the welcoming Branded One family really calms down the anxiety.”

Hardy, too, still copes with PTSD and still has vivid nightmares about his time in active duty. “When I was in the military, I had a couple things go awry. It was hard for me mentally to get to trust humanity again. I saw terrible things in war, and I started realizing that we are people and if these people are capable of these horrible situations, we all are.”

A good workout can only do so much. Branded One and Team RWB typically also have a monthly social event outside the gym for members and veterans to connect with each other and feel more at home. The events help Hardy not only trust humanity again, but help him manage his PTSD, knowing that he has support from other members. These events have also helped Freeman break out of her shell, cope with her mental health challenges, and make new friends.

Inside and outside the gym, a sense of structure also seems important. Coach Leonard offers his support to members through fitness guidance and encouraging advice — and being a stickler for routine. He says he’s seen members become more confident within just a few weeks, because they’re sticking to a routine and seeing results.

“Schedules keep a lot of people sane because it keeps them accountable,” he says. “I think that for the members, just being in a space that they feel at home in and knowing that other people in the room are going through similar things that they are can be comforting. We really try to make people know that they can just come in and talk.” 

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