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Meet The Real-Life Soldiers-Turned-Coaches Who Are Changing The Future

By Emilee White

For some women, walking into a male-dominated room can be an intimidating situation. Harrison Bernstein, founder and president of the non-profit organization Soldiers to Sidelines, knew that needed to change.

Soldiers To Sidelines is an organization dedicated to providing a “renewed sense of purpose for veterans, service members, and military spouses to become character-based coaches who serve their communities” and gives back to those who served their country by providing coaching certification seminars. How it all came to be, however, was just by chance.

“We had these folks coming back from the Middle East who were looking for something to do, so we thought ‘why don’t we bring them out to football practice and teach them how to coach football?’” Bernstein said. “[At the time], I was teaching at George Washington University and I would write curriculum on courses that I thought would make the ultimate coach because when I was at the [then] Washington Redskins, there was this huge gap between the sciences that we knew and what the assistant position coaches were knowing.”

From there, Soldiers To Sidelines began to flourish. At the core of his mission, Bernstein believed that people can’t be great coaches to others unless they truly understand themselves, and it didn’t take long before that mission was realized. Gradually, as the organization began integrating new service members and veterans into the community as coaches, their confidence also began to grow.

As time went on, Bernstein saw a need for expanding his reach beyond veterans and service members to also include military spouses. For Bernstein, Soldiers To Sidelines is centered around inclusivity, which is why the organization now offers a certification program designed specifically for women. 

“These women were rockstars anyway,” Bernstein said. “They were going to be successful with, or without, Soldiers To Sidelines. We were just kind of helping the way and then it was great because when women see other women being successful in it, it starts to catch fire.”

Here are just a few superwomen who’ve taken action and used the skills they learned in Soldiers To Sidelines to make a difference.  

***

GRETCHEN EVANS AND TEAM UNBROKEN

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Wizard of Oz, you may remember the iconic scene where the scarecrow, the tin man, the lion, Dorothy, and Toto skip blissfully down the yellow brick road, with Emerald City shining in the distance. It’s in that moment they believe they’re on their way to finally find their complete selves — for the tin man, it’s his missing brain; the lion, his missing heart; and the scarecrow, his courage. But just as they feel victory on the tips of their fingers, the wicked witch appears with an evil plan.

“[The witch] sends those crazy monkeys,” said Gretchen Evans. “They attack the group and they attack the weaker person of the group, which is the scarecrow. They unstuff him — the monkeys take all his straw, and bit by bit, they spread it out all over the yellow brick road. It’s in the bushes; it’s everywhere. And at the end of that scene, all you see is the scarecrow, but he is immobilized because he has been unstuffed and he cannot help himself because he can’t get up.”

That, Evans said, is exactly how she felt between military service, combat tours, and the difficulties of life in general. Evans felt like she was the scarecrow — slowly becoming unstuffed and leaving a trail of her stuffing all over the world. Then, when tragedy struck Evans knew she couldn’t restuff herself without help.

During her 27 years of service in the U.S. Army, Evans rose to the rank of Command Sergeant Major, the highest non-commissioned officer rank in the military. Tragically, while on deployment in Afghanistan, Evans was severely injured by a rocket blast, landing her in an Army hospital in Germany. When she finally came to, Evans recalls a doctor standing over holding a dry erase board with the words: “You’re deaf”.

“I knew one thing when I read those words, and that was that my career was over,” Evans said. “I went from being this high-ranking, decorated soldier, living the life I wanted and serving my country with my troops, to laying in a bed and not knowing what even the next day was going to hold for me.” 

At that moment, Evans knew she was completely unstuffed. Without a plan b following her military service, Evans struggled to find her footing and subsequently, a job, believing no one wanted to hire someone who was deaf, had a traumatic brain injury, and suffered from PTSD.

In her most vulnerable time, Evans knew she had to lean on doctors, social workers, mental health professionals, and most importantly, her family and friends to help her back on her feet.

“The people that are closest to me had to help me restuff myself, so that’s what I want to help other people do,” Evans said. “Those who had the stuffing knocked out of them, I want to help restuff them the best that I can.” 

That’s when Evans connected with Soldiers To Sidelines. When she first became involved with the organization, she appreciated what Bernstein had started and thought it was a great fit for veterans to take the talents they acquired while in the military and apply them to civilian life as mentors and coaches.

When it came to her own sports dreams, Evans decided she would take a non-traditional approach, and thus Team Unbroken was born.

In 1995, the show Eco-Challenge reemerged under the new series name World’s Toughest Race after more than a decade hiatus. When Evans found out, she assembled a team and submitted an application. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned and their application was ultimately rejected.

“The reason they really said no to us wasn’t necessarily because of our inexperience,” Evans said. “Really, what they were concerned about was that everybody on my team had a life-altering injury or illness, and that took them by surprise. They’d never had people with severe disabilities even attempt to do an adventure race, much less the world’s toughest race.”

Evans remained persistent. Her goal was to open a door that was closed to adventure racing for people with severe disabilities and challenge the stigma that people with these disabilities, illnesses, and traumas are less capable. 

After some tough back and forth, she was finally able to convince the producers of the show to give her team a chance. Incredibly, her story has since reached every corner of the globe and has inspired others with disabilities to keep pushing through their own tough moments. Team Unbroken still continues to race to this day. According to Evans, they’ve become better and wiser as time has gone on.

“We want to be a living example,” Evans said. “I won’t say that it’s easy even for us. And it’s certainly not easy for people who maybe don’t have the support system that we have, but we just want to be those people who are the encouragers and give some inspiration.”

Evans was recently inducted into the U.S. Veterans Hall of Fame along with 11 other military members, including Pat Tillman and Rocky Blair, who played in the NFL following years of military service. She said she is honored to be among these heroes.

“We are not superheroes today,” Evans said. “We’re like the norm. I’m like 61 years old, so I’m crazy normal. I mean, we’re nothing special other than we have the heart to help other people.”

***

AMY SCHWEIZER AND TINY TROOPS SOCCER

As a career-oriented sports-loving woman, Amy Schweizer’s dream job had always been to work in the community relations department for a professional sports team. She loved to give back and serve especially when it came to children, which is why a job at the Boys and Girls Club, as well as work in the Big Brother, Big Sister program was perfectly suited for her talents.

In a stroke of fate, Schweizer was working at a job fair booth for the Boys and Girls Club, which happened to be next to a Marine Corps recruiting table, where her now-husband, who is currently a Master Sergeant in the Marine Corps, was seated. 

Before meeting, Schweizer and her husband had very different life plans. To follow her dream of working for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Schweizer had already intended on moving to Florida.  Her husband on the other hand, had his sights set on California. But, as these things often happen, fate had other plans. Within one year, Schweizer married, became a military wife and found herself moving west. And, although she was happy with where life had taken her, she still dreamt of what could have been if she had followed the road to Jacksonville.

“I’ve always been the person that was ‘if I get married, great, maybe that’ll add something to my life, but I’ll have my career and everything going for me,’” Schweizer said. “Marrying into the military, that wasn’t the case.” 

As it happened, Schweizer had to put her career ambitions on hold after getting married, but that didn’t come without its challenges.

“I was just having a real identity crisis because I like to work,” Schweitzer said. “I wanted to have a career and that felt like a loss of myself for following him.” 

While pregnant with their second child, Schweizer met another military spouse who offered soccer lessons and asked if Schweizer wanted to join. At first, she was hesitant, but she soon realized she and her son needed activities outside the house. 

In time, Schweizer turned those soccer lessons into her own bonafide program — Tiny Troops Soccer. And, as a way to provide other military spouses with work outside the home, Schweizer created opportunities within the program that would allow them to contribute monetarily to their families. Schweizer has since expanded the program into 17 states and a handful of locations overseas.

It was soon after that Schweizer met Bernstein. It was through their conversations that he realized the importance of including military spouses as part of Soldiers To Sidelines.  

“I was the first spouse to go through their program,” Schweizer said. “I was very inspired by it. It broke coaching down into a way that I hadn’t quite heard before. Now it’s just kind of a great partnership where we support each other’s initiative by helping to market them or participating in them.”

***

VICKI HUDSON AND RUGBY

In 1979, Vicki Hudson joined the U.S. Army, where she served for 33 years, including five deployments. By the time she retired in 2012, Hudson had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

During her time in the service, Hudson found passion in rugby as both a player and a coach. As someone who was always seeking ways to continue her education and personal development, Hudson happened upon Soldiers To Sidelines through Facebook at a time when the organization was starting its first women-only cohort. Hudson immediately applied.

I already had extensive training and coaching techniques, so I wasn’t sure what another 20 hours would give me,” Hudson said. “I was intrigued by the military angle and very surprised by the depth of skill and information. I was really impressed with how comprehensive the training was over the week. It was an excellent use of time in terms of coaching development.”

Today, Hudson is also working toward a master’s in sports psychology and has realized that the coaching courses she took with the organization mirrored information she was getting in her education. After completing two of the Soldiers To Sidelines courses, she was amazed at how much she was able to learn.

“As a program itself, [Soldiers To Sidelines] is a good investment for anybody that wants to gain depth of coaching skill and understanding,” Hudson said. “It’s not just art, but it’s also science and coaching. I appreciate the time and effort they have put into creating a program that really teaches some of the science behind coaching and working with athletes.”

Now, Hudson is working with a developing program in Northern California — Razorhawks Rugby — that provides advanced-level exposure to high-performance culture and training perspective within sports for women. 

“It provides an opportunity to women players that wouldn’t otherwise get to travel anywhere,” Hudson said. “Our focuses are not just playing a game, but also fulfilling some of the values of the game that involve taking care of the community.”

***

AMBER LOVE AND BASKETBALL

For Amber Love growing up, ball was life. Although Love joined the U.S. Army just one year out of high school, she always knew she still wanted to pursue her passion in basketball in some capacity, which is why she turned to coaching.

While stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Love began coaching basketball at Carriage Hill Elementary School, where from 2009 to 2011 she coached the third and fourth grade girl’s basketball team.

Her coaching career began when a mentor, who was also in the Army, asked Love to practice with his daughter on the weekends and teach her the basic fundamentals of the game. During one of their regular practices, Love’s student asked if she could accompany her to open tryouts and it was during this open tryout that Love noticed the other players weren’t listening or even understanding the coach for that matter. Love took it upon herself to talk to the players on their water break with the hopes of gaining a better understanding into their headspace for the game.

As it happened, one of the parents noticed the players were more receptive to Love. Eventually, the head coach pulled her aside and offered her an assistant coaching position. The rest is history.

We won the city championship the first year, which was in 2010,” Love said “Then we [were] runners up in 2011. But ever since then, I was like ‘I must really get a good thing’ because they did so well.” 

Eventually, Love moved to Washington D.C., where the basketball platform and available opportunities were just a little bit different. Stationed at Fort Stewart, Love’s battalion commander was looking for a basketball coach for the men’s team. She knew this was her time to shine.

“Long story short, we won the basketball championship that week,” Love said.

Shortly before moving to Texas in September of 2020, Love was introduced to Soldiers To Sidelines and completed the level one certification process. It was through Bernstein that Love found out about a master’s program that focuses on sports administration with a minor in coaching.

While Love never envisioned herself getting a second master’s degree, she saw this as an opportunity to continue pursuing what she loved. Love will start her classes in Spring of 2022 and still has 16 months left in service, but has made it clear that she wants to continue coaching.

“I help out where I can when [my unit] calls me on a weekend,” Love said. “But when the winter sports come, I’m definitely going to be at the YMCA starting January.”

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Jay Garcia StudiosGretchen Evans, Melissa Sheridan Photography

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