Disabled vet turns to physical fitness to help him and others press on
Derek Weida’s humorous, profanity-filled Internet videos on bodybuilding and weight loss have attracted millions of viewers. The amputee veteran has his own clothing line, and tens of thousands of people have reached out to him for diet and exercise advice.
But Weida, 29, who credits fitness with helping him break out of severe depression after an insurgent’s bullet ended his Army career, said he would gladly give up his Web fame if he could return to active duty.
Through motivational videos and a nonprofit that helps veterans cover fitness-related expenses, Weida has found a new way to serve by trying to recreate his success for others.
“The two things that really helped me fall out of that dark period of my life was reconnecting with my veteran friends and purpose-driven fitness,” he said. “We use fitness as an alternative to alcohol and things like that. I think fitness is kind of the universal healer.”
The Next Objective, sustained by donations and “committed to empowering returning servicemembers to overcome obstacles and achieve post-military success,” has given about $16,000 in grants this year to help veterans pay for gym memberships, personal training and event sponsorships, Weida said.
“A lot of veterans stop taking care of themselves; they stop doing [physical training] and they get out and gain 30 to 50 pounds, which can fuel some depression,” he said. “A lot of that can be combatted by re-establishing that sense of pride within them, and reminding them how great they are.”
Weida’s social media posts on Facebook and Instagram provide an almost daily source of fitness motivation for his followers — veterans, servicemembers and civilians.
“Watching his videos and seeing what he can do with one leg really inspires me,” said Russell Allmandinger, 30, of Las Vegas, who was born with club feet and elected to have his left leg amputated below the knee in July. “With him being an amputee, too, he shows me workouts that suit me better than a person with two legs. He’s shown me through his videos and workouts that I can press on.”
A broken man
In June 2007, while on his third Iraq tour with the 82nd Airborne Division, he was met by a burst of gunfire as he led his men into an insurgent-filled house during a nighttime raid on the outskirts of Baghdad, Weida said.
“One second I was moving forward, the other second I was looking up,” he said. “It was kind of weird, because I didn’t even know where I had gotten shot.”
Weida, who had taken a bullet through his right knee, said he endured several months of failed surgeries and physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before doctors sent him home to Minnesota for recovery and more operations.
He said his prognosis was grim — they couldn’t get his knee to bend — but looking forward to returning to active duty kept his spirits up.
“They were confident that they could get my knee to work,” he said. “But even early on after the first major surgery failed, I told them to just cut it off.”
Weida, who’d already re-enlisted and planned to stay in the Army for 15 more years, said he was positive he could remain in the fight with a prosthetic leg.
“I just wasn’t ready to give up yet,” he said.
But doctors wanted to salvage his limb. Surgeries in the summer of 2008 also failed, and Weida said he was told later that year that he would be medically retired.
“From the time I got shot till the time I got that phone call, I was really motivated to recover and heal and train,” he said. “I really wanted to get back to my unit and keep doing the things I was doing in the Army, but when they called me, I just felt like everything was over.”
Over the next two years, Weida said he wallowed in alcohol-fueled anger, depression and suicidal thoughts. He was jailed several times after bar fights, arrested on drunken driving charges and spent time in psychiatric wards, he said.
He summed up his frustrations in a Nov. 11, 2010, Facebook post titled “My Veterans Day”:
“To my veteran buddies: I’m different from you. Being in the Army was the only thing I ever wanted to do. My dreams got ripped … away from me, and I know I am not the only man wounded, but people handle things in different ways. … I had a positive attitude for a long time. The situation, my life, just finally broke me.
“The pain in my leg just drags me down. Whenever I have moments of happiness, it’s guaranteed that those feelings will be crushed by pain.
“All I want is to have it all back. … I wish I were standing next to you, risking my life for you.”
A new focus
In January 2011, Weida took his first step out of that darkness when fellow 82nd Airborne veteran Sean Endsley posted a Facebook invitation asking friends to join him that June in a military-style obstacle course race called Tough Mudder.
“I’m not really sure why, but I asked to join the team,” Weida said. “It gave me that temporary purpose or focus, and I was slowly crawling out of my depression.”
He devoted the next six months to training and showed up for the 14-mile race in Beaver Creek, Colo., looking — other than his withered right leg — like he was carved out of wood, Endsley said.
Weida passed the upper-body-strength obstacles with ease and led the 24-member team across the finish line in about four hours.
“I finally accomplished a goal for the first time in four years,” Weida said. “But after a few days, the pain started setting in, and I was back to walking on a cane.”
Weida said he again asked doctors to amputate his leg, and this time they agreed.
“The way my leg was before, with it not bending, there was nothing I could do to make my life better,” he said. “I couldn’t improve the state of my leg. But now, with a prosthetic, my success is determined solely on how hard I’m willing to push myself.”
To keep Weida motivated, Endsley signed them up for another Tough Mudder. It was during the second race that Weida — who accomplished much of the feat on crutches and rallied his team around him to reach the finish line after eight grueling hours — realized his potential to inspire others, Endsley said.
“Up until that point, I don’t think he believed me when I would tell him that he had the power to do a lot of good and to help a lot of people — to find another way to serve his brothers and sisters in arms,” he said.
Recognizing the role that setting physical fitness goals played in his recovery, Weida said he turned to Endsley to help create a nonprofit that would encourage other veterans to do the same.
The Next Objective was granted nonprofit status in February. Weida, who serves as the group’s president, said TNO hosts monthly “musters,” where 50 to 70 veterans work out with him at a gym near Minneapolis. Endsley, the nonprofit’s director of operations, runs a chapter in Colorado.
“The solidifying factor was the instant feeling of acceptance when we started working out,” said Marine Corps veteran Daniel Purcell, who received a gym membership grant after attending a TNO workout in Denver. “It felt like I was back in the Marines with guys I could trust and goof off with.”
With the help of veteran-owned clothing company Article 15, Weida started a fitness-focused T-shirt line called Straight Legless and said he is using part of the proceeds to create a veteran-operated gym in the Minneapolis area that he hopes to open within a couple of years.
“Every gym has the equipment you need to get in shape, but it’s all about the environment,” he said. “I want to create a gym with a very free environment. We’re going to have a sign on the door that says, ‘No shirt? No problem.’ It’s going to be a place of healing and growth in a cool, intense, awesome way.”
Social media motivator
In January, Weida started making short motivational Internet videos to inspire others while promoting Straight Legless. A profanity-laced video uploaded in June, “Losing Weight with Derek Weida,” has gone viral, with more than 6.5 million views on Facebook and YouTube, and has spurred about 40,000 emails from people seeking fitness advice, he said. But Weida wishes another video, “Welcome to Legless Part 2,” had grabbed as much attention.
“With that video, I tried to show people that I’m human just like everybody else,” he said. “People say I’m unstoppable, that I never quit, that I don’t know what quit is. None of that’s true. I gave up for a long time, and I’ve worked extremely hard to get where I am today.”
Amy Halperin, 29, a Coast Guard maritime enforcement specialist stationed in Charleston, S.C., calls Weida “the poster child for people who have gone through tough times” and said she relates to his passion for giving back to others.
“I think watching other people’s success is just as gratifying to him as his own success,” said Halperin, who said she also works as a CrossFit instructor and turns to Weida’s videos for motivation. “It’s like having a coach in your back pocket, right on your phone, motivating you in the gym to never give up.”
Weida, who continues to train daily, said he participates in CrossFit competitions against able-bodied athletes and recently earned a sponsorship from 1st Phorm, a supplement company.
“Five years ago, I never thought in a million years I’d be where I am today, but I’m here,” he said. “We can’t see what’s in front of us, but if we keep moving forward, eventually we’ll get there. If we stop and we quit, we’ll never find out what’s next for us in life.”