James Connor is a Marine Corps veteran who has been working to help veterans and first responders get off of the medications that they have been prescribed by replacing it with physical training, nutrition, and other alternative therapies that help them work through their PTSD or other causes of anxiety or depression.
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Scott DeLuzio: 00:03 Thanks for tuning in to the Drive On Podcast, where we talk about issues affecting Veterans after they get out of the military. Before we get started, I'd like to ask a favor if you haven't done so already, please rate and review the show on Apple podcast. If you've already done that, thank you. These ratings help the show get discovered so it can reach a wider audience. And while you're there, click the subscribe button so that you get notified of new episodes. As soon as they come out. If you don't use Apple podcasts, you can visit DriveOnPodcast.com/subscribe to find other ways of subscribing, including our email list. I'm your host, Scott DeLuzio and now let's get on with the show.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:44 Hey everyone. Today, my guest is James Conner. James is a Marine Corps Veteran, a personal trainer and nutrition specialist. I actually think I'm over oversimplifying these things a little bit. He has a number of certifications and qualifications for both nutrition and fitness, and I'm sure I won't do it all justice. So, James, I'll let you introduce yourself and tell people a bit about your background.
James Conner: 01:08 All right, Scott. Well, thanks for having me on the show. As you said, I am a Marine Corps Veteran. I did 20 years in the Marine Corps. I went in at the end of the 90s as an Infantryman. So, I did my first 10 years as a rifleman, got a bunch of deployments under my belt doing that, some peace time work, pre 9/11 post 9/11, and a few tours to Iraq. Probably the most important one was in 2004, when we went into Fallujah in November and secured the city that time. That was out of California and then I moved to the East coast and reactivated 19, which is known as the walking dead. That battalion had been deactivated and they were bringing it back. So, I went over there and help form that up as a Sergeant.
James Conner: 01:59 And then I had an opportunity to jump into the brand-new Marine Corps, special operations command. They were trying to fill the units and then they also had a schoolhouse that they had to staff. And when I went over and met with their recruiter, he saw some of the work that I had done in the past. And he said, I see you need a break from deployments, but I could definitely use you at the schoolhouse. I said, cool. So, I went to the schoolhouse and it was a great experience, coming out of the infantry and then go into play with the big boys and playing by big boy rules. I went to airborne school and then when I came back, they had restructured the unit and I basically got promoted out of a job because I picked up a Staff Sergeant and they only had one billet for a non-reconnaissance staff sergeant. And so, I still had a regular infantryman designation. At that point I decided to switch jobs and move into counterintelligence and human intelligence. And that's where I finished out my career in there. I did a few deployments with various special operations units. I did a tour in Germany managing Marine Corps, counterintelligence, operations in Europe and Africa. Then I came back to the States and pretty much was counting the days until I retired.
Scott DeLuzio: 03:17 Like a lot of people do. I'm sure. Yeah. So, now you run a website, WellnessForVets.info is the website. And tell us a little bit about that. What's the background on that and what is it that you do there?
James Conner: 03:35 So, it ties in with how I ended up in Europe this time around. And somebody asked me that question one time and I gave a very long and convoluted answer. So, I'll try to give you a better one. Basically, what happened was when I retired, I got a job. It was a very well-paying job and I loved the people that I worked with, but I hated the job itself. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to make some lifestyle changes. So, I started doing that. I really wanted to go back to Europe because when I was stationed in Europe, I spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, but didn't see much of Western Europe. So, I was trying to combine my newfound love of fitness and nutrition and everything with an opportunity to go back to Europe.
James Conner: 04:22 So I decided to apply to school. And now I'm studying sports and exercise science at the University of Limerick in Ireland. How that ties into my website is during all this time leading up to school, going to school, I just started accumulating a lot of information and I thought it could be really helpful to active duty and Veteran personnel. It really started when I was celebrating Christmas with one of my friends and his family and I saw him taking some of his prescribed medications. And I was just like, there's got to be a better way to deal with the stuff that a lot of Veterans are dealing with. And then, when I was making my own lifestyle changes, I started learning a lot about nutrition and exercise and all the different effects it has on the body. And someone said, “you're so good at synthesizing information and explaining it to people. You should start a blog.” And then the blog turned into a website and then the website turned into a podcast. And so that's how all that got started.
Scott DeLuzio: 05:26 That's how all that came together. Well that's good, it's taking some of the passions that you have and things that you're good at and you're using it to help out other people, other Veterans, and military personnel. It's awesome. So from what I understand with all of this information that you've accumulated, you've been focusing on keeping Veterans and first responders and people like that off of the medications that they have been prescribed using things like physical training and nutrition and other alternative types of therapies to work through their PTSD or other causes of anxiety or depression and things like that. So how does all that work? What is it that you're doing to help these people stay off these types of medications?
James Conner: 06:17 Well, so my ultimate goal is, and of course being on the other side of the ocean, I don't have a lot of hands on. I'm still building the website, so it's kind of like, “Hey if people want to reach out, I can coach them through it.” But my goal is, and what I've been doing is because we have so much information available to us, I just read a lot about different stuff. And through that, I learned what happens to the brain when you actually exercise, whether you're doing a robotics or resistance training, what happens to your body when you eat certain foods. A lot of the reasons why people take the medications is because they're depleted or have some sort of instability of the natural chemicals in their brain.
James Conner: 07:08 And a lot of that starts in their bowels basically. So, it's just really crazy. You start looking at one thing and then you end up going down this rabbit hole of information, but what's so great is, it's kind of funny that with social media, people like to bag on other people and be like, “Oh, well, where's your medical degree?” But the other thing is, if you're in school, they're going to tell you to use peer reviewed sources. So, okay. I'm going to use peer reviewed sources, it's from professional scientists. So, the audience can't see it, but I've got stacks and stacks of papers on branch chain, amino acids, and an equally sized stack on essential amino acids, stacks on probiotics. And I just read all this stuff and I just try to consume as much information as I can.
James Conner: 07:59 And then in turn, share it with people. Because the folks that I've known who have been on prescription medications have never been happy. The meds didn't do anything for them. And I don't necessarily fault the system. I think there are people that are sincerely trying to help, but there's a lot of other ways to do things that people either don't want to accept or they don't know about. And I just try to share that with them. And if it's something they want to explore; I'll try to work with them through it.
Scott DeLuzio: 08:33 Exactly. Yeah. And I think there's probably a time and a place for certain medications in certain circumstances for certain people, but what you're saying is that it seems like that old song that we used to sing as kids, like the head bone is connected to the neck bone and the neck bone is connected to the shoulder bone. I'll spare you the terrible singing or whatever, the point that all of this stuff is sort of connected together in some way. It seems like what you're doing is figuring out how one thing affects another. And since they're all connected how they affect each other in one way or another, in a big picture, is that the kind of accurate?
James Conner: 09:10 Yeah, exactly. And when I started out, I didn't want my website or the eventual podcast to just be another health and fitness thing. I see a lot of Veteran pages on Instagram or whatever, and a lot of meat heads and that's cool. If guys want to get out and body build, I got a friend of mine about to enter his first competition in a couple of weeks. What I really wanted to do is use exercise and nutrition as the foundation of wellness. And I'm starting to explore a little bit with some technologies. There are some things that have been around for a little bit. I just either didn't know about it, or I didn't have the money to play with it. I spent a year in Romania after I left the US and because of the cost of living there was so cheap, I was able to play with a lot of stuff.
James Conner: 10:04 So, I did the leech therapy and then there's other things like there's a couple of tools; there's one called muse, which is a neurofeedback tool. I'm wearing one right now that's an Apollo, it's got different programs that vibrate you and regulate your nervous system. So, there's all kinds of gadgets out there that you can use. And then also there's other things that I want to explore, like the soft martial arts meditation and various forms of massage. So, to bring it all home, I didn't want to just do health and fitness and you're going to be mentally fine. I wanted to incorporate technology, old medicine, new medicine, health, and nutrition or wellness and pumping iron.
Scott DeLuzio: 10:57 Yeah, absolutely. It seems like it all makes sense. I know for me anyways, days that I exercise, I feel so much better. I have so much more energy than days that I don’t for that run today, or I'm just going to stay in bed, I'm going to skip it or whatever. And, at the time it seems like a great idea because I'm tired and I don't want to get out of bed or it's cold outside or whatever the case may be. And I don't really want to jump out of bed and go do that type of stuff. But when I forced myself to go do that, there's something about it that just kick starts the day.
Scott DeLuzio: 11:39 I've gotten to the point where I don't drink coffee or caffeine or anything like that to get my day started the way I used to. I go for a run and I use that natural energy that I get from the exercise that I'm doing to get my day going. And there's definitely something there. I don't know the scientific reasoning or why all of this stuff works, but I know for some reason it does and I'm grateful.
James Conner: 12:16 It's funny you say that because I could most certainly get into that. But another one of the things that I want to try to do is with the way that I work with people is I want to give them just enough of the science to keep them interested, but I don't want them to get lost in a science. I mean, even me going to school, by the time I've finished my degree, technically I'll be a scientist, but I would never have a client or somebody I'm working with and then start bogging them down with biochemistry or molecular structures of whatever, and T cells and B cells of the immune system and all this stuff. If they ask me, I'd be glad to tell them, but I need to know that information so I can employ it with them.
James Conner: 13:01 And like you talk about feeling great after exercise. When I was in Romania, I had a couple clients and none of them had anxiety or depression or anything like that. At least not that I knew. They were all females and it was something for me to do to kill time, but they weren't big weightlifters. And just to see them change their mood when they started lifting weights, I would push them to do things they hadn't done before. And you could just see it snap and this sense of accomplishment. And you could tell when the brain was dumping all those feel good chemicals because they had just achieved the milestone, not even getting to like neuromuscular signaling and all that, but if we just look at the feel good chemicals that are burning, it was exciting to watch somebody go through that.
Scott DeLuzio: 13:52 And what is it then that causes those feel good chemicals. And is it something that people can reproduce from one person to the next; is that something that's easy to reproduce? Or is it something that is a little bit different on a person by person basis?
James Conner: 14:12 I can't necessarily say it's easy to reproduce, but what I have found thus far, a lot of the anxiety issues that people have may be, especially in the Veteran community, in first responders, is they're constantly stimulated and they basically stimulate themselves out of homeostasis, just stability, because they're constantly operating in such a state of alertness and even something as simple as driving down the road, you have to watch out for the car and your left, you have to watch the car on your right. When you pull up to a stop sign, what's going to happen. And we don't really think about these, our brain does. So, by the end of the day, we're burned out. And if you just do that all the time, all those neurotransmitters that are supposed to help you relax, they may be depleted.
James Conner: 15:05 For some people, it might be another issue, but if we're just going to look at something simple, it might be a neurotransmitter problem, in which case you can fix that by being aware of what you eat, knowing what's going on in your gut, some people might have a condition where they're not absorbing B vitamins, which are key for producing some of the neurotransmitters that are supposed to keep us from wigging out. But one thing I always say, though, is anxiety itself is not a bad thing, because if we didn't have anxiety, we wouldn't worry about our kids running out in the middle of the street. But it's the inability to control that and just let it get away from you, that's when the problems begin.
Scott DeLuzio: 15:53 Right. So, what types of things do you suggest people do? Maybe there's not a one size fits all solution to this, maybe it's a case by case situation. Someone who might have some depression or anxiety that's out of control, not like worrying about your kids running in the street, that's a kind of good anxiety like you described, but someone who's getting a little bit out of control. What are some of the things that you suggest that they do? Is it just dive into the deep end and get started on this, or is there a gradual workup that you would suggest?
James Conner: 16:42 It's definitely case by case, if somebody were to work with a coach, mentor, or therapist I think it should definitely be a community effort. It's not just the personal trainer that's going to get this individual back to health. It's not just going to be the counselor either because there's limited accountability once you leave the office. So, it definitely needs to be a whole thing. Somebody would need to get to the root of the problem, figure out, what's going on with you? Why do you feel this way? Preferably, if somebody comes forward, then you know that they're aware and you can help them. But then you have to take things into consideration, like, are they on medications because you can't just stop medications, cold turkey, right?
James Conner: 17:28 You can wean off, or maybe you find something else. So, there's that, but you have to look at each individual and do a thorough assessment. Now, some things are pretty standard. A healthy diet is a healthy diet, but you might need to determine what's a healthy diet for that individual. If they have certain allergies, the best source of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are needed for the brain, salmon is always on the list. But if you have somebody who's allergic to seafood, you need to find an alternative and then do you need to supplement that? So, the first thing is you need to do a very thorough assessment.
Scott DeLuzio: 18:15 Someone might be out there and they know that their diet's not all that great. I don't know where to start with exercise and things like that. What are some things that they could do? Or what should they look for in a trainer of some sort, whether it's for nutrition or exercise or things like that? What are some things that they can look for in someone who might be able to help them get on that right path?
James Conner: 18:46 So, the first thing you to do is you have to find somebody; I would look for a coach who actually isn’t trying to make a dollar and do a full assessment with all your health background. That'll show the professional and hold you accountable, all for not really much effort. They're going to understand your food needs and work with you through that. And like I said earlier, somebody asks those questions, the coach is actually able to answer them.
Scott DeLuzio: 19:41 True. So, that's good to know basically you need to know that you have somebody in your corner, who's looking out for you and is able to answer the questions that you have about your diet and nutrition. Is there anything else that you wanted to let people know about the stuff that you do and how you're working with trying to help out Veterans and first responders?
James Conner: 20:17 So, this goes back to the beginning, Scott, and it's like we see these 22 pushup challenges and we see these groups of people that go around hiking all the time. And that's always PTSD awareness but then I got to a point where now everybody's aware, where do we go from here? And that's kind of what pushed me in this direction, especially when I saw it with my friends and I wanted to figure out what can I do to help these people? I started learning and I put my GI bill to work and the GI bill is paying for me to go to school overseas at a very good university. I found some of the best information, not coming out of the medical field, but out of the sports world, because with sports, they're always trying to look at how to make the athletes perform better.
James Conner: 21:12 And what I try to do is just translate that sports knowledge and make it digestible for a regular person, which is how I ended up where I'm at now. It's about network and community. And one of the huge issues of vets is they don't have a mission anymore. Now I know you've done a couple shows on that. What's your new mission. I listened to an episode of yours about the operational mindset, and that was a great episode, and I actually reached out to that guy, his name's escaping my head at the minute.
Scott DeLuzio: 21:49 Yeah. Jeff Banman.
James Conner: 21:53 And I reached out to him and we started talking on LinkedIn and I think we're going to set up a Skype call and to see how we can put our heads together and make some stuff happen. So, it's things like that. You gotta have people that want to help and then you have people that want to be helped.
Scott DeLuzio: 22:13 Exactly. So, I think that's really great. I think it's great that you reached out to Jeff and that you guys are perhaps going to work together. I'm glad that there was a connection able to be made there. People need to want to be helped, they need to have that right mindset, and without that, I think it's an uphill battle to some extent.
James Conner: 22:44 I just don't want him to get bogged down thinking, because I hear a lot of complaints about the VA. I feel like I've been pretty fortunate. I didn't have any problem with the VA when I retired, but some people have not had a good experience and sure, the VA's not giving me my meds they're “I can't get into my appointment.” And I would like to just be able to say, you don't really need that stuff. Me or somebody like me can show you another way to get back to the old you without having to rely on those pills. What happens is, over time that you have to increase the dosages and stuff or what I would like to try to avoid only because I've seen what it does to people.
Scott DeLuzio: 23:34 Sure. Yeah, absolutely. Well, James, it has been a pleasure speaking with you on the show today. Where can people go to find out more about you, what you do, your website and other places that they might be able to look you up for more information?
James Conner: 23:56 Yeah, sure. So the website is wellnessforvets.info, on Instagram, it’s @wellnessforvets, and then on the Instagram and on the website as well is a hyperlink to the wellness for vets podcast, which is also on anchor FM and iTunes and I think that's pretty much all my platforms right now.
Scott DeLuzio: 24:24 I will have links to all of this in the show notes so that people can click over to that and follow you over there on your social media and on your website; they can follow your podcast. After you're done listening to this episode, go do a search for the wellness for vets podcast and try to subscribed to that where you're listening to this podcast as well, and that way you can find out more information about the health and fitness and wellness information that James is putting out through the podcast. So, James, again, it's been awesome speaking with you. A lot of great information out there for Veterans, PTSD, anxiety, a number of other issues but I really wanted to thank you for joining me and sharing that information.
James Conner: 25:24 Yeah, thanks, Scott. It's been fun and I'm looking forward to following your shows more closely from now on and I really enjoy them.
Scott DeLuzio: 25:32 Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
Scott DeLuzio 25:42 Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website DriveOnPodcast.com. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @DriveOnPodcast.