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JBLM's Wounded Warrior class teaches cooking, social skills

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Even with the tomato sauce bubbling on the stove and the garlic bread baking in the oven, class was in full session.

For one group of 12 Soldiers from the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the cooking lesson inside the battalion's billets was teaching more than just the tricks to making good spaghetti.

Preparing lunch was just one of the elements on display Tuesday as part of the new Task Force Phoenix University, a program WTB officials debuted at the beginning of the year.

The program is the first collaboration between the social work and psychological element of treatment for wounded Soldiers, said Ellen Bloom, chief of Behavioral Health at the WTB.

"It's a joint venture," Bloom said. "We work on every aspect of the Soldier."

Soldiers attend three-hour class sessions four days a week for three weeks that focus on everything from stress, anger and pain management to coping skills and overcoming social anxiety.

"Occupational therapy is (about learning) skills for the job of living," said Lisa Gonzalves, an occupational therapy assistant that teaches the cooking session. "It's a chance to bring all those skills they've been talking about for the last three weeks together into a functional activity ... the application part to it all."

For Soldiers coming back from long deployments to the war zone, transiting back to normal life can be difficult task. But when a debilitating illness, amputation or traumatic brain injury is added to the picture, it can pose an even greater challenge to the transition.

"This is community reintegration, which means returning to your life with your unique challenges and managing whatever it may be: a physical challenge like back pain, or a missing limb, or a brain injury or any type of anxiety," Gonzalves said.

The cooking session represents doing a familiar activity that everyone needs to do to survive with each Soldier's unique challenges, she said.

"It's fun with a purpose," Bloom said.

The program also helps Soldiers open up socially, which can aid in other aspects of their rehabilitation.

"It's beneficial in that it helps them normalize the challenges they're going through," Bloom said. "One Solider might be talking about something he's going through and another will say, ‘Oh yea, that's how I feel.'"

Gonzalves has experienced Soldiers volunteering a story about themselves during the cooking session, something she sees as great progress in overcoming social anxiety.

Although Soldiers do sign-up for the program, it is not mandatory.

"We've had amazing attendance," said Bloom, who has been with the WTB since 2003.

There is no standardized program such as Task Force Phoenix University across the Warrior Transition Battalion Command, but Bloom said that might change in the future. WTB officials plan to keep offering it to Soldiers.

"We think it was incredibly successful," she said. We're definitely committed to making it long-term."

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