NEW YORK – Jon Atkins was once so overcome by anxiety and depression that he would barely even leave his house. Now he has taken to tennis so much that he found himself hitting on the main stadium at the U.S. Open.
The retired Marine's outlook and health have turned around through a partnership the USTA developed with the Orlando VA Medical Center in Lake Nona, Florida.
Atkins suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, so severe that he said he had become "isolated" before deciding to give tennis a try.
"I was just kind of in a dark place and that allowed me to open my eyes to something new," he said Monday while sitting next to his rescue dog. "I didn't really have a good direction."
Now he has such a passion for the game that he traded in the mountain bike he had stopped riding to get himself two new rackets.
He joined fellow veterans Marc Spittler and Henry Pruitt for the morning hitting session on Labor Day, part of the celebration of the sixth annual U.S. Open Military Appreciation Day. They later watched from a suite above Ashe and were recognized during American CoCo Vandeweghe's victory in a fourth-round women's match.
"I want to thank everyone that's served in the military. We really appreciate it," Vandeweghe said in an on-court interview. "We wouldn't be the country with the 'home of the brave' without you guys, so thank you very much."
Like the pros who played later, the veterans got coaching on the court and even bickered back — though without addressing their instructors as "sir" or "ma'am" as they would in the service.
"That's going to change when we get back," joked Joanne Wallen, the USTA's director of adult individual play. "I want to get, 'Yes, ma'am!'"
Wallen helped spearhead the program that started in the spring, with about 70 veterans from the largest VA hospital in the country getting weekly clinics at the USTA's campus. The program became so popular that some of the wounded kept returning even after their rehabilitation was complete.
Atkins was a soccer player but that sport was too physical for him now. Pruitt tore up his knee playing badminton, and Spittler, having previously left the Air Force, was forced to step down from the California Air National Guard 20 years ago because of his own injuries.
But the veterans found that their battered bodies could handle tennis once they started attending the Monday night sessions. Atkins and Pruitt, a retired Navy jet mechanic who spent most of his career in Asia, even learned that they live nearby and can play each other.
Their families have also taken up interest, and they're having no problem meeting colleagues who want to follow them into the program.
"Now that they're finding out that I'm into it they all want to go hit balls now, so I've always got somebody to play with," Atkins said.
And on Monday, it was right on the biggest tennis stadium in the world.
"Coming to something like this would have never happened before," he said.
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