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Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - 10:44pm
Washington — Serving as the only chaplain assistant at the Pentagon Chaplain's Office -- responsible for facilitating religious support to 25,000 service members and civilians from all branches of the military -- you wouldn't think Staff Sgt. Denises Veitia would get bored easily. When it came to her physical fitness, though, she felt she needed a new challenge.
So, she became a competitive bodybuilder.
Veitia is the sole chaplain assistant responsible for facilitating religious support for all faith groups for thousands of civilians, Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines assigned to the Pentagon. The Pentagon Memorial Chapel hosts weekly services for Catholic, Protestant, Episcopal, Hindu, and Jewish adherents, as well as daily Muslim prayer services. The Pentagon also hosts large-scale celebrations for major religious holidays.
Though her Army assignment keeps her busy, her physical training routine left her wanting more.
"I was already bored with the daily workout routine," Veitia said. "Then I started doing Crossfit for a little while. Then I got bored, too. So basically, I always got bored. I got the hang of it and needed something to challenge myself."
Bodybuilding entails building muscle through weight training and diet. In bodybuilding or figure competitions, participants pose in lineups and routines before a panel of judges, and are ranked on symmetry, muscularity, and conditioning.
"I had always liked it, but I never thought I could look like those girls I saw," Veitia said. "It was something I decided to do to just to challenge myself."
To prepare for her first competition in April 2013, Veitia spent at least an hour and half at the gym every day. But the hardest part of the 16-week preparation period was the dieting. She worked with a trainer to follow a carefully crafted diet plan, which included weighing her food for every meal and eating six to seven times a day to keep her metabolism high. At one point, she ate lettuce and chicken for every single meal, morning to night.
"There were some days it was tough. I was a grumpy person at times," she said, "But every Saturday was my cheat meal - and that just energized me. When I woke up, I thought 'it's one day closer to Saturday and I can eat whatever I want.'"
Her "cheat meal" was always the same: "Pizza. Papa John's. With the garlic dip. Oh my gosh I would smother it," she laughed.
The last few weeks of training, though, there were no cheat meals. And no sugar. And no carbohydrates.
"It was tough. I lost any sense of taste - I was just eating for the nutrition. In a way I feel like this all sounds horrible - like why would you put yourself through it? I guess it's just something to challenge yourself," she said.
At times, her roommate wasn't very helpful, putting doughnuts in front of her. Through it all, though, she had a close friend who served as a battle buddy.
"Especially during the times when I wanted to quit and I couldn't take the dieting, she was the one that reminded me how far I had come," Veitia said.
She has competed twice so far, both events in 2013. And, in both events, she earned first place. Her first win took her so much by surprise that she missed her number being called for first place as she applauded the other contestants.
"I never thought I was going to take first place - especially in my first competition," Veitia said. "I just wanted to do it to accomplish something. You know, to meet that goal and be able to say 'been there done that' and then let's move on to something different. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it."
Though diet and exercise may be the most difficult part of training, the way competitors present themselves on stage is essential during bodybuilding or figure competitions. No matter how muscular and defined competitors are, Veitia said, if they do not know how to pose they will not get a good score.
"It's a little awkward at first, the way you pose. It took me some time and I had to practice in front of the mirror and wearing five-inch heels didn't make it any easier," she said. "I thought I was going to be a little shy being in a bikini up on stage - and I was very nervous," she said. "I am glad it didn't show."
Overall, Veitia's mother was supportive of her accomplishments, but she wasn't sure what to think about her daughter's new hobby at first.
"My mom was a little skeptical," Veitia said. "She's very old fashioned. At first she had the mentality of what many women think - that if you lift weights you will look like a man. But that it not what it is about. It can be very feminine, depending on what categories you want to compete in."
After the competition, Veitia knew just how she wanted to celebrate 16 weeks of dedication: "With pizza!"
Through the extensive physical training and intensive dieting, Veitia found that this hobby was an exercise in resilience.
"It gave me something to look forward to," she said. "It made me realize that, those folks who say 'I could never do that, I could never look like that' -- actually you can, if you put in enough effort and follow step-by-step. I won't deny it. I had many nights when I didn't think it was for me anymore. I had many nights when I thought I might quit. But I would have regretted it, being as close as I was."
Skills she learned in the Army -- self-control, discipline, and trust -- helped her follow through.
"I was disciplined enough to follow my diet plan, even though I didn't want to. When my trainer told me I couldn't eat bread any more, I was like 'you're killing me!' But I had a goal and I knew he was going to help me. I trusted him," she said.
Veitia has been a Chaplain assistant for over ten years - but it wasn't originally part of her plan.
"Honestly, it was the assignment they had available. I requested to go to basic training as soon as possible - and that was the job they gave me," Veitia said. "I have enjoyed every single assignment I've had."
She had just turned 18 when she arrived at her first assignment in Yongsan, Korea. A few days later, she spent her first New Year's away from home with complete strangers. Assigned to a transportation unit, she and her chaplain were constantly on the move to visit troops training in the field. Though she appreciated the opportunity to experience other cultures and travel to places she never would have gone without the military, her time in Korea wasn't without its hiccups. Not long into her first assignment, she got her Humvee stuck in the mud. She and her chaplain had to wait for the mud to freeze, meaning they had to stay at another camp overnight.
"Needless to say my chaplain wasn't very happy with me. It was my fault - I didn't want to listen and I thought I could get it," Veitia said. "After that I started driving slower. I was a Pfc. (private first class) at the time - so, I learned. You live, you learn."
Veitia sees a parallel between the challenges she has overcome in her Army career and those she encountered during training for bodybuilding competitions.
"There are a lot of Soldiers straight out of high school joining the military. Basic Training is probably the hardest thing they have ever done; being away from home, maybe away from boyfriends, girlfriends, and family," she said. "But in nine weeks, you'll be done. I'm not going to say you won't be yelled at after basic, but you won't be yelled at as much. You will get a new assignment. You have to find something to look forward to."
Her reflections on her bodybuilding experience have resonance for any person -- Soldier or civilian -- going through a difficult time personally or professionally.
"Just keep looking at the finish line. Just because you have a little hiccup -- no matter how big or how minor, just keep aiming to your final goal," she said. "So many times I cheated and had chocolate when I wasn't supposed to or had bread when I wasn't supposed to, but I still accomplished my goal. The thing to keep in mind is, even if you do slip up one day, just start all over the next."