Written by Jesse Skiles
BUCKHANNON -- We can never thank our United States military enough.
They are the ones donning the uniforms, doing the training, and performing the necessary operations to ensure the freedoms we all enjoy in our day-to-day lives. For many veterans however, life is oftentimes difficult after their tenures of serving our country.
For those that are injured or suffering from PTSD, it can be a long road back. For those not injured, it can also be a long road back as well...simply fighting the battle of getting successfully integrated back into the free society they fought so hard to protect.
A group of local coaches have stepped up to assist this effort. West Virginia Wesleyan football coaches Del Smith and Harrison Bernstein are leading a program called "Soldiers to Sidelines" that has already made a large impact on veterans.
Bernstein, an assistant coach on the WVWC staff, is the co-founder of the organization and also its Executive Director. Smith, the Bobcat head coach, is the leader of the football wing of the organization.
"Our mission is simple," Bernstein said. "We want to work with these individuals who have given such sacrifice for our country, and help open some avenues for them to give back to our youth through athletics. For many it has given them a sense of purpose that may have been lost after their time serving. It is also something that is going to help our youth programs get some additional quality coaches."
Bernstein points back to 2009 to the inception of the idea.
The plan was originally hatched by Coach Matt Shea, a friend of Bernstein's. The pair are visionary in terms of re-integrating military personnel into civilian life.
"He told me about the idea of integrating military into youth coaching and I thought it was brilliant," Bernstein said. He just needed some help to bring it to existence. At the end of 2014, Matt asked If I would help make this a reality in which I obliged.
Shea's idea finally came into fruition in 2014 when Bernstein was able to formulate a series of seminars to get the program off the floor. Now in its second year of existence, Soldiers to Sidelines has been a major success. In 2015, the program included three seminars, two football, and one lacrosse.
The last football seminar, held at Georgetown University, registered 30 former military members who were aspiring football coaches.
"It is something that extends beyond the X's and O's," Smith said. "We try to focus on things like team building and developing traits to empower the young athletes they are working with. With what these guys have gone through, you can underestimate what they can convey in terms of mental toughness and perseverance. The comradery and friendships we get at the events is the most powerful piece...the mission of this organization is very important to our society."
Graduates of the seminars receive a certificate of their membership into the organization. To date, there are over 200 members, and that number appears ready to grow significantly.
Georgetown Prep High School Assistant Athletic Director and Head Lacrosse Coach Scott Urick heads the lacrosse wing of the organization. The U.S. Naval Academy Lacrosse program hosted the last Soldiers to Sidelines lacrosse coaching seminar.
Head Navy Lacrosse coach Rick Sowell attended the seminar. His hospitality included a tour of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. and an inspirational message to the future military coaches. These seminars are free and open to anyone with a military affiliation.
While most of the attendees have been placed with younger athletes in youth leagues, middle schools, and high schools, some have worked their way into some internships at the college level.
One such position directly involves Smith and Bernstein, as they are currently working with Army veteran Antwan Sorrells. Sorrells retired from the Army as an E-5 Sergeant with four deployments on his military service resume. He is a West Virginia native, and a 2003 graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley.
While at Woodrow, he was a star running back for the Flying Eagles, and was also a standout sprinter on the track team. Sorrells had gone through two 180 deployments in Iraq, then two more in Afghanistan as well as taking two IED blasts.
As a qualified Special Ops officer, he was in the middle of several major missions during the campaigns in both areas. It was during his final tour that he was injured significantly, receiving severe scarring in his retinas that has left him legally blind as a result of the two IED blasts.
Searching for a niche, in his post military life, Sorrells decided to attend one of the Soldiers to Sidelines seminars after recalling the influence football had had on his life and in developing his character.
"It was a great experience," Sorrells said. "After only about 15 minutes into my first session with Coach Bernstein and Coach Smith, I knew this was a path I wanted to go forward with."
Sorrell's first assignment was back in Beckley. He coached a youth team in the local league, and also was the administrator for the local Punt, Pass, and Kick competition. It was a stint that meant a lot to Sorrells. "It was especially meaningful in that it was my hometown," Sorrells said. "There are a lot of young kids back in Beckley that are in need of guidance. There are some very real drug issues in town there now, and it is critical for so many of these kids just to have someone believe in them and to do the right things. It was good to be back in Beckley and to help them in some fashion."
This Fall, Sorrell's coaching took the next step, when he was chosen to work an internship with Wesleyan's football program. This was also significant for Bernstein and Smith, as they were seeing one of their STS graduated working at the D-II level.
"We are giving him a variety of assignments, and he has been doing a great job," Smith said. "I really like this part of the state...I love to hunt and fish...I have a boat," Sorrells said. "My wife has enjoyed being back here in West Virginia as well. The people here are so down to earth, and when you get to see these friendly faces on a daily basis, it reminds you of what you were fighting for. Plus, it is really gratifying when the guys on the team here ask for advice or just want to talk. It has really given me a sense of purpose once again more than anything."
There are dozens of stories out there like Sorrells since the program began. According to Bernstein, the goal is to see the program expand to additional seminars, and to additional sports. They have also created a local partnership with Redskins Salute, the Military Appreciation organization of the Washington Redskins.
"This is a great way to connect our military coaches to the NFL in the Washington D.C. area," Bernstein added. "They get free access to some exciting Redskins events hosted by Redskins Salute.
"As we expand and grow, we will be able to affect tons of military members as they transition to civilian life via the sport they love, all the while positively impacting our youth athletes. The best way to support the mission is to visit the website and become a member whether or not you ever take advantage of our services."
For further information on the program, including dates for future seminars, visit the organization's website at soldierstosidelines.org. Bernstein can be contacted at Harrison@soldierstosidelines.org.
A small but poignant slogan on the website states it best: "Military Makes Great Coaches."
Photo: Coach Sorrels working with senior safety Tyler Bolen.