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Meet 8 Veterans of the United States Armed Services Who Are Now Personal Trainers

New graduates from Focus Personal Training Institue are entering the next chapter in their lives—building better bodies.

Three months into a six-month vocational training program at the Focus Personal Training Institute in New York City, students in the current class are asked to give advice to a new crop of students ready to start their own program.

One by one they stand in front of 40 people. The audience of newcomers is already in shape, passionate about fitness, hoping to learn how to share that passion with future clients.

The typical response tells new students that even if they are fit right now, they don’t know everything about exercise science. It’s sage advice to a group hoping to become personal trainers after concluding the intensive classroom and hands-on curriculum.

But recently, one student didn’t give a typical response. He was a veteran, fresh off a tour of duty overseas. He admitted to the group to having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He also admitted that three months ago, before starting at FPTI, he would not have been able to stand in front of 40 people to tell them he had PTSD. He started the program simply to learn a skill—personal training—that would help his transition back into civilian life, but he had come away with a higher sense of purpose and more self-confidence.

“It’s something we didn’t expect when we started working with veterans,” says Gabe Valencia, a co-founder of FPTI. Valencia and his business partner, Joe Masiello, certified their vocational school with the Veteran’s Administration in March to accept benefits from former military members. The duo saw personal training as a natural fit for servicemen returning home. It’s physical and requires strong leadership. They did not expect it to help transition veterans back home socially, some just weeks off tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Vets have often lived a healthy lifestyle and can be natural motivators," Valencia says. "They also seem to love helping people and relate well to the structure required in effectively implementing fitness programs." Twenty veterans, from all branches of the military, have now completed the program at FPTI, most of them with aid from the post-9/11 GI Bill. In either a three-month or six-month program, these veterans learn the science and practical skills to become personal trainers.

It’s really not that hard to become certified as a personal trainer. All it takes is an Internet connection and a passed test. But as doctors and health care professionals work closer with the fitness industry, Valencia and Masiello see a greater need for better-educated and more effective personal trainers. Their students, including veterans, often end up as top performers in the highest-rated gyms around New York City.

"Successful trainers make their living in a gym setting, not sitting in a classroom or on computer. As such, competent training is as much about a practical skill set  and communication ability as it is book knowledge," Valencia says. "You can’t develop this skill effectively with online instruction alone.” Which is why in the afternoons during a typical session on the training floor at FTPI, you will see veterans—used to brutal boot-camp style training—developing the technical and social skills to motivate others.

MEET 8 OF THE NEWEST GRADUATES

Name: Michael Gernold
Age: 28
Service Branch: Air Force, safeguarding nuclear missiles
Years served: 6
Where were you stationed? 
Cheyenne, Wyoming
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in personal training? 
I always wanted to make it a full time career, I was always into working out.  I want to continue my fitness education.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back civilian life?    
Finding a job, getting back into the work force, it was hard to find a job that was related to my education and my experience from the AF
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back into the classroom? 
Memorizing the material, it was as if I was starting from square one.
What have you found helpful in easing these transitions? 
The AF discipline and professionalism.
What activities have been most helpful/significant in your education at Focus thus far? 
The in-depth education, the hands-on approach.
Do you find more benefit from classroom instruction or the practical activities on the gym floor? 
The education on how to execute things properly and correctly.
What are your plans after successfully completing the Masters Course at FPTI?  
Become a full time trainer, pursue a business degree that will assist me in my trainer career.



Name: Brian Simpson
Age: 26
Service Branch: Marine Corps
Years served: 5
Where were you stationed?  
Jacksonville, North Carolina
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in personal training?  
I always liked working out so I wanted to get educated and make a career out of it.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back civilian life?  
Did not face too many challenges, I applied what I learned from the Marines and used that to transition into civilian life.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back into the classroom?  
I used what the marine corps taught me in my classroom transition.
What have you found helpful in easing these transitions?  
My marine corps background and discipline.
What activities have been most helpful/significant in your education at Focus thus far?  
Both, but the practice sessions are a huge component.
Do you find more benefit from classroom instruction or the practical activities on the gym floor?  
The practical, as they help you deal with scenarios that will happen in real life training sessions.
What are your plans after successfully completing the Masters Course at FPTI?  
Short term, training at a gym, long term opening my own gym.



Name: Gabriel Jimenez
Age: 26
Service Branch: Navy
Years served: 5
Where were you stationed?  
Newport, Rhode Island
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in personal training?  
I was always into fitness and working out.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back civilian life?  
Not many, as I had already been in a school setting, I have always been disciplined, that help tremendously.  Every day things that I did not have to deal (healthcare, financial) with were challenging but I learned to adapt.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back into the classroom? 
Switching from the mindset of being told how and what to do versus here being taught and shown how to do it yourself.  I get to think for myself now rather than someone else make decisions for me.
What have you found helpful in easing these transitions?  
Going to school at Focus that is GI friendly it was an easy transition, I saw the appreciation and found the team here very helpful in my adjustment.
What activities have been most helpful/significant in your education at Focus thus far?  
Both, you need the theory and the practical, the theory helps translate what you learn to the practical on the floor.
Do you find more benefit from classroom instruction or the practical activities on the gym floor? 
Even though they go hand in hand I find the floor practical a little more helpful as you get to experience how the real client interaction would be
What are your plans after successfully completing the Masters Course at FPTI?  
Work as a trainer, hopefully be part of the expanding team of Focus trainers.


 

Name: Alfree Parani
Age: 33
Service Branch: Marine Corps
Years served: 12
Where were you stationed?  
Camp Pendleton, CA; combat in Afghanistan
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in personal training?  
Always wanted to become a trainer, always interested in the fitness field
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back civilian life?  
Ability to separate and adjust to a new purpose, difficulty in letting go, defining a new me
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back into the classroom?  
It was hard to adjust and being a 32 year old freshman with 18-25 year olds
What have you found helpful in easing these transitions?  
Keep pushing myself, trying to adjust to civilian life, working on developing myself within.
What activities have been most helpful/significant in your education at Focus thus far?  
Focus is very similar to what I was used to in the army, classroom education/theory and then practical.
Do you find more benefit from classroom instruction or the practical activities on the gym floor?  
I find the floor very effective.
What are your plans after successfully completing the Masters Course at FPTI?  
Use what I learned here, develop my skills further and see where the trainer career takes me.


Name: Timothy Johnson
Age: 28
Service Branch: Marine Corps
Years served: 5
Where were you stationed?
Hawaii, deployed to Afghanistan
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in personal training?  
I wanted to make a change in my body and mind.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back civilian life?  
Communicating with people, expressing myself and emotions.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back into the classroom? 
Age difference, it was hard to go back to a classroom and be the 28 year old freshman, starting from the beginning.
What have you found helpful in easing these transitions?  
Techniques I learned in the armed forces, talking with other veterans.
What activities have been most helpful/significant in your education at Focus thus far?  
Make the course realistic, given all the necessary tools to succeed.
Do you find more benefit from classroom instruction or the practical activities on the gym floor? 
Both, they go hand in hand.
What are your plans after successfully completing the Masters Course at FPTI?  
Continue working as a full-time trainer.


 

Name: Jermaine Emptage
Age: 31
Service Branch: Army
Years served: 10
Where were you stationed?
Iraq and Kuwait
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in personal training?
I wanted to continue doing what I had started in the Army. I was a drill sergeant and was training new recruits so I decided to continue and become a trainer.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back civilian life?
The difference in the work ethic in the army and civilian life.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back into the classroom?
Age difference, being older and starting new in the classroom, the difference in maturity level.
What have you found helpful in easing these transitions?
Other veterans’ support.
What activities have been most helpful/significant in your education at Focus thus far?
The education process at Focus Trainer Institute is the same as the army, there is theory and practical, so I used what I was accustomed from the Army.
Do you find more benefit from classroom instruction or the practical activities on the gym floor?
They work and blend together very well.
What are your plans after successfully completing the Masters Course at FPTI?
Will continue my education for exercise physiology and start my own gym.


 

Name: Marcus Johnson
Age: 33
Service Branch: Army
Years served: 12
Where were you stationed?
Fort Campbell, KY
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in personal training?
I wanted to get into shape. I always liked fitness and wanted to use that and transition into civilian life.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back civilian life?
Communicating, from being a leader in the Army and telling new recruits what to do.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back into the classroom? 
It was hard to adopt from being a teacher as I was in the Army to being a student.
What have you found helpful in easing these transitions?
My willingness to learn, leaning on other veterans.
What activities have been most helpful/significant in your education at Focus thus far?
I prefer the floor activities.
Do you find more benefit from classroom instruction or the practical activities on the gym floor?
The practical activities.
What are your plans after successfully completing the Masters Course at FPTI?
I plan on interning at a gym where veterans are members, learn more about training and help other veterans with their fitness goals.


 

Name: Pavel Gotovkin
Age: 32
Service Branch: Navy
Years served: 4 yrs
Where were you stationed?
Japan
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in personal training?
I always had an interest in strength and physical training.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back civilian life?
Before civilian life I was very stressed and wound up, I had to learn to adopt and relax more.
What are some of the challenges you have faced transitioning back into the classroom?
Not too difficult to adopt as I was in school before coming to Focus Personal Trainer Institute receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Film.
What have you found helpful in easing these transitions?  
Perseverance. I had a goal and I am here to get it done.
What activities have been most helpful/significant in your education at Focus thus far?
The practice aspect of it.
Do you find more benefit from classroom instruction or the practical activities on the gym floor?
Both, they work well and complement each other.
What are your plans after successfully completing the Masters Course at FPTI?
Be a full time trainer.

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