LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – On Veterans Day, people who were once in battle unite with an unlikely partner: professional athletes.
An organization, Merge vets and gamers (MVP), connects those who have fought on the combat field with those who have already played on a sports field. Members of two groups train together and chat every week.
Participants say they felt lonely until they joined MVP.
âI was one of those veterans who was like ‘Nobody gets us, we’re all alone, we’re the 1%, the whole nine,’ said Bruno Moya, program coordinator for the Las Vegas MVP chapter. Moya served in the Marines for seven years and was deployed to Iraq in 2003.
âI went from being a platoon sergeant in the Marine Corps to parking cars for a living and it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, go from being a people manager to someone. one that throws me his keys and says “Hey man, go park the car,” Moya said.
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Combat veterans and former professional athletes share common challenges after leaving their careers, from physical injuries to mental health issues.
âOne thing we miss is that we no longer serve a purpose bigger than ourselves,â said Isaac Saldivar, the Las Vegas-based MVP program manager.
Saldivar was wounded in combat in Afghanistan in 2008, turning to pain relievers to deal with back and head trauma.
âWhen I came out I fell into that stigma, sort of basically lost everything fighting to let go of that identity,â Saldivar said. “It took me enough trouble to seek a change in my life.”
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The National Council for Mental Wellness reports that approximately 730,000 people deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have mental health issues requiring treatment.
Less than 50% of returning veterans receive mental health treatment, and 22 veterans kill themselves every day.
But groups like MVP hope to change that.
âFor the first time, I was like ‘Oh my God, I’m not alone anymore,’â said Saldivar.
Like veterans, professional athletes have a transition period after retirement.
Dave Mezzany, also known as “The Pain Train”, was a professional fighter for 10 years.
âI didn’t have a lot of talent with things, but I had a lot of courage and I worked hard,â Mezzany said. âI found that in a cage fight, as long as you work hard and have a lot of courage, you can go pretty far. That’s why I chose that instead of a fence and a House.”
The 38-year-old retired from fighting a few years ago but is now active with his kickboxing studio and MVP.
âYou go there, you sweat with your team and now we’re all vulnerable,â Mezzany said. “We’ve been through the same ordeal together. You feel more like one when you talk about it.”
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Each session ends with a song: âMVP out of three! One, two, three, woo!
Mezzany has a message for other former athletes that easily translates to combat veterans: âThere is life after combat, there is life after your sport, there is life after everything you do. “
MVP is present in seven major cities, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Seattle and Dallas.
They also offer virtual zoom meetings for those who cannot attend in person.
Saldivar, meanwhile, spoke to veterans: “Vulnerability is strength and power. It is not weaknessâ¦ you are not what happened to you.”
And Moya wants the other veterans to know, âYou are worth it.