The veteran-owned gym has become the site of peer-to-peer meetings in which veterans counsel each other from an empathetic standpoint
James Mahurin resembles a Viking, or maybe Tormund Giantsbane of “Game of Thrones” fame. Once on patrol in a village in Afghanistan, when he squatted with his fists on the ground and launched himself through a barricade, a Special Forces teammate said he looked just like a silverback.
“It stuck,” Mahurin says.
He owns Silverback Fitness, a gym on 443 Franklin St. in downtown Fayetteville, with his wife Jill. They offer everything from functional training to Krav Maga self defense to Jiu Jitsu to meditation.
And the silverback has a softer side.
The Mahurins’ gym has become the site of peer-to-peer meetings in which veterans counsel each other from an empathetic standpoint that isn’t available anywhere else.
“Right now it’s SF guys that were either in 3rd (Special Forces) Group with me or coming from the SF community,” Mahurin says. “Guys have been able to get things off of their chest talking to a teammate while they’re working out or while they’re doing stuff in here because we spend so much time in the gym working out.
“It’s a way for them to let things out and not necessarily be in everyone else’s face.”
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A veteran who asked to be referred to only as Tom frequents the meetings even though injuries keep him from working out.
“I’ve tried a number of things — going through therapists and psychiatrists — they haven’t been where I have been, they haven’t done what we have done. They don’t know what we go through mentally, physically, the struggles we have,” Tom says.
“We understand each other. He (Mahurin) understands me as a brother. It’s a family. It’s not patient-client, it’s not in a timeframe.
“It’s comforting to know that you have somebody like that in your corner.”
Marhurin was introduced to peer-to-peer groups in 2011 while in treatment for post-traumatic stress.
The group was effective, but during a span of nine months in 2018, nine of Mahurin’s veteran friends committed suicide.
The no-man-left-behind mentality kicked in hard, and he organized local peer meetings.
The group ultimately made its way to Silverback.
“I don’t want anybody in the SF community or in the Fort Bragg community to think that they’re alone in this,” Marhurin says.
“You can be in a room of 100 guys that are going through it and think you’re the only one.”
Tom knows the feeling.
“I think it took the war to slow down for everyone to realize the effects it really had on us. It took that for us to realize something is going on, something is wrong. That’s what happened to me,” he says.
“When everything stopped, I was like, I need help. This is not me. I became depressed. I’m an extrovert but I became an introvert.
“I would go weekends without speaking to anybody. I would do anything to stay at work as long as I could because that’s where my friends were.”
His marriage fell apart. He doesn’t know the exact amount of combat deployments he’s had, but it’s somewhere between 17 and 19. Hhis total deployments are closer to 22.
“For a couple of years, I was gone two hundred and some odd days with training and everything,” Tom says.
“It became my happy place. It became where I wanted to be, where I was more comfortable.
“ … I’ve done 20 years of damage. It needs to be undone,” he says.
“It is a struggle, every day.”
So, every day, Mahurin calls.
And Tom talks.
The words haven’t always come easily. Therapists, psychiatrists never broke through.
“They want to help, but that person has never stepped in Iraq. That person’s never seen their buddy die. That person’s never taken a life,” he says.
“That’s fine that you want to help but how are you going to sympathize with me? How are you going to help me out if you can’t understand where I’m coming from?” he says.
”Here’s some breathing techniques,” he adds in mock tone, having been given that advice too many times.
“Groups like this, this is what helps us,” he says of Mahurin’s gatherings. “This is how we have spent our military career. We don’t know anything else, we know us. We’ve spent more time with us than we have our own family.”
“My goal with this is just to make sure that somebody has a place to go and that they know they have a place to go,” he says.
Tom and Mahurin are physically imposing, intense, tough, strong. They are elite soldiers.
But they know mental health is as valuable as physical health, and the two are a natural fit.
After a couple of years training in his gym, Mahurin started to customize workouts.
“A lot of guys from the unit I was in were coming back with injuries — (roadside bombs), gunshots, parachute accidents — they were finding out they weren’t in the shape they’d been in and their bodies didn’t move the same. So we started doing what we call adaptive training,” Mahurin, who has 30% use of his left arm, says.
“We’ve had success with it, so now we do work with a lot of veterans.”
The Mahurins started training clients in globo gyms and soon realized they wanted less restriction, so they opened a small gym at Marketfair Shopping Center on Skibo Road in 2010.
In their own space, the Mahurins began to develop a Caveman training regimen along with a supportive community of clients.
Functional training workouts are designed to strengthen muscles that make everyday activities easier and safer.
On Thursdays, Jay Andrecht, Tracy Giordano and Denise Renfro power through 45 minutes of constant motion — jogging, lifting, jumping through 10 reps of pull-ups, curls, rows and more in a session emphasizing power. Other sessions focus on endurance, speed and agility.
“They’re all here for different reasons,” Mahurin says.
Renfro will be 58 next month, a long way from her days of running track at Indiana University, but she says she’s never felt more fit.
“It’s the best gym because you just come and work out, you don’t have to worry about any of the other stuff, they’re responsive if you’re hurt, they adapt your workout, whatever it takes, they work with you,” she says.
Renfro has been a client of the Mahurins’ for a decade. Giordano has been coming about three years.
Functional training helped her run a half-marathon despite a chronic condition.
“I’m a type-I diabetic so it’s really important for me to adjust to my condition because my sugars would drop out and it felt like i was literally hitting a brick wall but, together, we figured it out,” Giordano says.
Earlier in the week, 10-year-old Nadia Bruce bounced around the gym during Krav Maga class, based on a self-defense and fighting system developed in Israel.
“I like getting to learn how to defend myself even though I kind of already do because I fight most of the boys in my class,” Bruce says.
“It teaches me how to be safe.”
Her mother, Natascha Bruce-Roman, is a case manager at Sentinels of Freedom, a nonprofit that helps wounded veterans complete their higher education.
She says Mahurin has been accepted for a scholarship toward a functional medicine coaching degree.
“He’s expanding what he can do here at the gym, which is great,” she says.
She helped Mahurin transition out of the military in her previous job with the U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition, now the Warrior Care Program.
“I thought I got rid of him,” she jokes before taking a serious tone. “He’s phenomenal. He does a lot of great things for the community and his fellow green berets and the veteran community as a whole.”
Sunday Life editor Monica Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 910-486-3518.