ORLANDO, Fla. – Marc Spittler and Henry Pruitt, veterans who served their country in different branches of the military, have found a new sense of camaraderie through the Military Tennis Program. This free program, hosted at the USTA National Campus in Orlando in partnership with Orlando Utilities Commission, takes place every Monday from 6-7 p.m. and welcomes veterans of all tennis experience levels.
Spittler, who joined the U.S. Air Force in 1986, served in various security forces roles until 1997. After leaving the Air Force, he pursued a career in law enforcement and became a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Pruitt, on the other hand, joined the U.S. Navy in 1962 and retired in 1982 as an E-6. During his time in the Navy, he served as a jet mechanic and took on various responsibilities within his field.
Spittler and Pruitt discovered the tennis program through different means. Spittler’s involvement began when he enrolled his son in tennis lessons at the USTA. A friend informed him about the veterans’ tennis program, and he has been participating since its inception. Pruitt, on the other hand, stumbled upon an advertisement for the tennis clinic at the Orlando VA Medical Center and decided to give it a try. Prior to joining the program, Pruitt had already been familiar with the USTA campus through his involvement in the ACEing Autism program.
Both men remain actively engaged in the program and can be found on the tennis courts every Monday evening. Spittler, who is also an educator, initially had limited knowledge about tennis but has since become an assistant coach for the Lake Nona High School tennis team. In fact, the boys’ team went on to win the state title in 2022. Moreover, both Spittler and Pruitt had the opportunity to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York in 2017, courtesy of the USTA.
While neither Spittler nor Pruitt experienced significant trauma during their time in the armed forces, they recognize the importance of camaraderie for themselves and their fellow veterans. Pruitt recalls having to convince some veterans at the VA to try the tennis program, but once they participated a couple of times, they were eager to continue. The positive impact of the program is evident in the transformations they have witnessed among their peers.
Tony Stingley, the senior manager for community outreach at USTA, has been volunteering to lead the veteran tennis program since its early days. Although he is not a veteran himself, Stingley has observed the profound impact the program has on participants. He recalls a veteran who was in a dark place and credits the tennis program with turning his life around. Stingley emphasizes that the veterans give back to the program as well.
Jo Wallen, senior director at USTA, played a pivotal role in establishing the Military Tennis Program. Her love for the game and desire to give back to the community motivated her to start working with the Orlando Veterans Affairs Hospital to launch the program. Wallen believes that stepping onto a tennis court allows individuals to momentarily forget their surroundings and focus solely on the game. The mental and physical skills required in tennis translate to everyday life.
Looking back on the program’s journey, Wallen reflects on the impact it has had on veterans and herself. She emphasizes the sense of camaraderie and friendship that the program fosters among staff, guests, and participants. The program continues to thrive and offers opportunities for veterans to experience both patriotism and tennis, such as the upcoming College Matchday on February 17, which will feature a match between the United States Air Force and the United States Army.
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