A new wellness campaign encouraging healthier lifestyles throughout the Defense Department kicked off with author and television personality Montel Williams at the Defense Logistics Agency’s McNamara Headquarters Complex May 15.
The Healthy Base Initiative, part of DoD’s Operation Live Well and President Obama’s National Prevention Strategy, is designed to fight against the rising occurrences of obesity and tobacco use among military service members and defense civilian employees. DLA Headquarters is one of 13 demonstration sites for the HBI program.
Williams, who detailed his struggle with multiple sclerosis, said he changed his entire lifestyle to better his odds against the disease.
“I set about making sure that I would change my life for the rest of my life,” he said. “I said that day, ‘I have M.S. but M.S. is never going to have me.’ So I set about trying to study and learn as much as I could about this illness and the things that I can do to impact it. … I started realizing that it would not just impact M.S., but it would impact the health and well-being of all people [if] I just shared what I learned.”
For years, Williams cut down on junk food and took his medicine religiously, including shots every day, and thought he was doing the right thing. But in 2006, his disease took a turn.
“I didn’t want people to notice how much pain I was in,” he said. “I didn’t want them to see how difficult it was for me to get around. I was on a pretty steady slide, which was typical for this illness. I was very blessed to get involved in a double-blind study three years ago. … Now my diet is completely changed. Let me tell you something, I could soft pedal this to you and act like you can take your time to get healthy, but I’m going to tell you, you don’t have time. We don’t have time. This nation doesn’t have time. … What will make a difference is us, individually, understanding our responsibility for our health care footprint.”
Williams said he wants people to know the choice to exercise is a life-changing one, something he has experienced firsthand, and he encouraged employees to take charge of their health and be aware of what they’re putting in their bodies.
“This initiative is probably one of the most powerful initiatives I believe the military has ever put in place,” he said. “Not just because it’s a military-sponsored initiative, but it’s one that is going to include civilians. … This morning, at 5 a.m., I was in the gym. Don’t tell me you have no time. This is how you can change your life. My choice is, if I don’t, I can’t walk. I couldn’t walk before you right now.”
For Williams, a former naval officer, the struggle to achieve a balance between his disease and the life he once lived is a daily battle. Once an avid snowboarder, he quit the sport in 2007 as his disease progressed. Recently, after a combination of diet, exercise and medication changes, he returned to the sport.
“I’ve been managing my diet, my exercise, my flexibility,” he said. “I almost quit [snowboarding], but it’s the fact that I paid attention to every little detail of my health and wellness that got me back. And I’m going to stay on that board as long as I can.”
The event also featured several guest speakers, including DLA Director Navy Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek; Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and director of the TRICARE Management Activity; and Charles E. Milam, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy.
“It’s a big thrill to kick off DLA’s Healthy Base Initiative,” Harnitchek said. “HBI is really designed to identify ways to improve the overall health and wellness of our DoD service members, civilians and their families. There are 13 installations and agencies that are part of the initial HBI implementation. And DLA, like always, is the first to get this going.”
Harnitchek highlighted several new initiatives coming to the organization in the summer, including a bike share program and a weekly farmer’s market. He also encouraged employees to follow his own example of fitness, noting that a ready workforce depends on its health.
“We have a great fitness program here at DLA already,” he said. “Those who see me walking to the gym, you know that I’m a big believer in fitness. I think that’s what HBI will do for everybody that participates; you’ll not only be healthy, active and fit, but you’ll have a lot of fun doing it. It all counts, and it all matters. The important thing is to just get started. Before you know it, you’ll be a fanatic. Really, it’s a big win for everybody.”
Woodson, a trained vascular surgeon who serves as the senior doctor for the Defense Department, said healthy living is the one thing he can’t order his patients to do.
“I’m responsible for the health of the force and, by extension, the civilians and the family members of our active-duty service members,” he said. “When they’re healthy and happy, I know the force is in a better position. I’m a vascular surgeon, I spent a lot of my career repairing arteries and opening up blood vessels to prevent strokes and heart attacks. The one thing I can’t do is order the patient to change their behavior. It’s hard to force people to change behavior; they’ve got to be willing to change behavior. Our job is to make it easy to do that.”
Woodson also praised DLA, noting that the agency serves as a role model for all of DoD and the country. In addition, Woodson emphasized that although this is an individual commitment, leadership and organizational culture play a huge part in individuals’ success.
“This is an individual commitment, but it’s important to note that the culture and environment of the organization in which you work is important to success and that we need to make sure that you’ve got the tools available to make the changes that you desire,” he said. “As much as we want to make change in our behaviors, when we live and work in environments that don’t value health, it’s easy to do the opposite. We need to actively encourage healthy behaviors and discourage unhealthy ones. It’s much harder for an individual to actually stay committed to their pledge if the work environment and organization doesn’t support that change.”
Recognizing that burdens and stresses placed on military families often deter them from healthy lifestyles, Woodson said he believes the HBI can help all DoD employees make healthy choices every day, something that also makes DLA a good place to work.
“This change requires leadership, commitment and investment,” he said. “You have that here. With all of the ingredients here – the individual commitment, the leadership commitment, the tools and the science to support you – I know you will succeed and it will pay off. For DLA, it’s about readiness, retention, recruitment and productivity. A healthy workplace becomes self-reinforcing; it becomes a good place to work. In DoD, we are moving from a system that is focused on health care to one that is focused on promoting health, about prevention and doing the right things early in life so you don’t need those procedures I was trained to do. We are here to help you in this effort as partners in your health.”
Rising obesity rates, coupled with the rising costs of treating obesity and smoking-related issues in the DoD population were indicators the department needed to makes some changes, Milam said.
“We’re doing this because obesity is on the rise,” he said. “If I could show you a color-coded map, back in 1990, the U.S. was blue, meaning we did not have an overweight and obesity problem. In 2010, 40 percent … of our nation is obese. The predictive model to 2030 is the majority of the U.S. will be obese. Now why does that matter to us? Because today we recruit from a pool of about 27 percent of young men and women who join the military. If I look at the predictive model, and if that holds true and obesity continues to rise in the U.S., it will have an impact on recruiting. We already know it has an impact on retention. We already know it impacts readiness. Today, just on the obesity-related illnesses alone, we spend $1.6 billion in the DoD. Then, you look at the smoking-related issues and that’s another $1.6 billion. That’s $3.2 billion that we spend on these two things alone.”
Applauding DLA for adopting a three-hour fitness policy, Milam said he is encouraged by what he sees at the agency, something he hopes to pass along to other installation commanders.
“The key here is that if we build it, you need to be able to come,” he said. “You need to be able to use it; you need to be able to use your fitness. This is the same logic we’re using across all of our installations as I speak to the installation commanders. The one thing I tell them is it’s OK for your team, for your staff to go for a walk at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, to clear their mind, to get out and move. Today we’re so busy we don’t have time for that. We need to make time for that because history tells us and the research tells us and corporations we work with that if people can stay healthy, the productivity goes up immensely.”
With each of the 13 sites using different initiatives, Milam said he hopes results of the Healthy Base Initiative will eventually shape DoD’s overall health policy and result in a healthier U.S. in general.
“The nice thing about the 13 sites we have … is that everyone is going to be doing something a little bit differently,” he said. “Everyone has their own initiatives. What we really hope to get out of all of this at the end of this demonstration is to figure out what levers that we pulled and pushed really moves the needle, what things work, not only to look at an overarching program for the DoD, but in my opinion, it’s how we can help this nation.”
Additional information on HBI can be found at the following links: