Recreation Therapy Keeps 82-Year-Old Veteran, Athlete, Coach, Mentor on His Feet


— You may have seen him at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center, he is the one with an easy smile, a bounce in his step and multiple award medallions around his neck. Army Veteran Bernie Gibson, 82, is an athlete who has been competing in the National Veterans Golden Age Games (NVGAG) since they began in 1985.

The NVGAG are part of the medical center’s Recreational Therapy program, an evidence-based program that helps injured Veterans improve their functional independence and quality of life.

According to the medical center’s Recreation Therapy Supervisor Jon Palks, Recreation Therapy may look like all fun and games but it’s actually very serious treatment. “Our therapists help Veterans enhance or maintain their motor, physical, social and cognitive skills. It’s unconventional, but effective, especially for those who resist other types of treatment,” Palks said.

For Veteran Bernie Gibson, Recreation Therapy helps give his life meaning. “I’ve competed all over the place, Maine, Hawaii, San Antonio, New York, you name it,” he said. At the most recent games in Biloxi, Mississippi, he earned a gold medal in table tennis, and silver medals in shot-put, discus and horse shoes. Table tennis is his favorite he says, he’s been playing since he was 12.

The games not only provide an athletic venue but help him and other Veterans form strong friendship bonds. “I now have friends all over the nation, we keep in touch throughout the year and can’t wait to meet up again and compete with each other,” Gibson said.

Mr. Gibson is no ordinary competitor; he is also a coach and a mentor. “At the games, I often host a mini-camp to help Veterans hone their skills and to teach them how to stretch and prepare properly so they don’t injure themselves,” he said.

Jon Palks says one of the best aspects of his job is watching Veterans take what they learn in Recreation Therapy and applying it other aspects of their lives. For instance, Bernie Gibson is not only training for the next NVGAG to be held in New Mexico in August; but is putting together an exercise class for a senior citizen center in Washington, D.C.

For more information about the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s Recreation Therapy Program contact the Office of Public Affairs, 202-745-4037.