Marine, fitness instructor and community leader – These are just a few of the titles used to describe a Wyomissing, Pennsylvanian, resident who has dedicated his life to serving.
The past 12 years of Christopher T. Kaag’s life have been a journey of discovery in which he has overcome his own personal challenges in hopes of supporting others to do the same. It has been a path marked by tragedy, pain, challenges and the euphoria of overcoming all of them to achieve a dream. It was a dream that took root when he was a young boy with a desire to grow in the footsteps of his father as a U.S. Marine.
“My dad, my grandfather and my uncle were all Marines,” said Kaag, a Cherry Point, North Carolina, native. “I knew I wanted to be a Marine when I was 7 years old. I remember seeing all the pride my dad had and how patriotic he was, and I knew that was what I wanted. So my dad cosigned, and I shipped to Parris Island as an overweight, lazy 17 year old.”
Upon completion of boot camp, and 50 pounds lighter, Kaag had a new perspective on hard work and was ready to begin his Marine Corps career.
He was sent to Millington, Tennessee, where he was trained as an aircraft electronic countermeasures systems technician on the EA-6B Prowler. After completing his initial training, he was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, and then sent on two tours to Aviano Air Base, Italy, in 1996 and 1997.
It was during his second tour that Kaag realized that a previous traumatic experience had a greater impact than he initially thought.
“I was playing on the Marine Corps Rugby team in the spring of 97,” Kaag explained. “There was a five-meter penalty, and I got in front of this guy and tried to tackle him, and he kneed me right in the temple. I was knocked out, and when I came to, I tried to get back into the game and had no idea where I was or how to play – I had lost my short-term memory – so I went to the hospital and was diagnosed with a concussion.”
Kaag was released from the hospital that same evening believing all was well.
“I went out drinking later that night with the other Marines, you know, I was young and healthy. I didn’t think anything of it. About two weeks later, I went out to get ready for a (physical fitness test) and noticed my feet were dragging and that I had weakness in my hip flexors,” said Kaag. “So I went and saw an Air Force doctor who thought I might have a tumor on my spine. The CAT scan came back with nothing, so they sent me to Walter Reed hospital in D.C. to try some different tests.”
The doctors at Walter Reed took multiple blood samples, gave Kaag a spinal tap, and tried using electric stimulation tests to determine what caused the lack of mobility in Kaag’s legs. After nine weeks of testing, one of the blood tests came back with a positive indicator of Adrenomyeloneuropathy, or AMN, a degenerative disorder that affects the spinal cord and nervous system. In March 1998, Kaag was placed in the Wounded Warrior platoon until his separation from the Marine Corps in February, 1999.
“I can still stand up. I just don’t have any voluntary mobility in my legs. They do whatever the hell they want,” Kaag explained. “After I was diagnosed, a doctor there connected my head injury to the onset of AMN. I was only 21 years old and unfortunately my Marine Corps career was coming to an end.”
With his dreams of following in his family’s footsteps fading, Kaag made the decision to blaze a new path for himself. He enrolled into Pennsylvania State University and dedicated himself to his education. Within a few years, he earned his bachelor’s degree in business.
“I recall that it was during my last year of college that I started to figure out what I was going to do,” said Kaag. “I did my senior internship at Pfizer in Lititz between 2003 and 2004, and then I was working the night shift at the gym, and I would take the other workers there through some callisthenic workouts. I really enjoyed doing it, so I started looking more into personal training and eventually connected with Semper Fit.”
Semper Fit is an organization with a variety of programs, services and activities that are provided to Marines, sailors and their families. Its mission is to strengthen individual, family and unit readiness by promoting physical and mental well-being.
“In late 2004 Semper Fit was hosting a (physical training) Coordinators course in Camp Lejeune, so I reached out to them, and they allowed me to participate,” said Kaag. “I received my certification as a group fitness instructor after the course and basically started hosting classes in a local gym for $4 a person.”
In 2005, Kaag began building his business, Corps Fitness, in Reading, Pennsylvania, which used Marine Corps workouts to motivate and inspire people to improve their physical fitness through outdoor training sessions. In 2007, he was able to move into his own building, and since then, he has used the gym as a tool to give back to kids in his local area, especially Marine Corps enlistees.
“The Marine Corps and the lessons it taught me saved my life,” said Kaag. “Those lessons inspired me to continue serving by supporting enlistees at my facility so they can learn how to be mentally and physically tough so they are better prepared for the rigors of recruit training. I don’t know an exact number, but I’ve helped over 200 kids prepare for boot camp so far.”
In addition to being a fitness instructor for people of all abilities in his community, he is also active through his charity.
The IM ABLE Foundation, which Kaag launched in 2007, helps build and support active lifestyles for individuals with disabilities, according to Kaag.
”We’ve raised almost a million dollars that’s helped about 1,000 people through adaptive equipment grants, donations to research efforts and educational classes.” said Kaag. “I really just want to help people achieve the right kind of mindset so they can go out and be successful despite the disabilities they have.”
One individual who has benefited from Kaag’s work in the community and participated in the foundation is Melissa A. Hazlett, Corps Fitness program director and trainer, and a native of Mohnton, Pennsylvania.
“I’ve known him for about 10 years now, and it’s simply amazing, all the work and different things he’s involved in,” said Hazlett. “He and I always joke around that we have a hard time saying no to people because we want to help everyone we can. Weather its kids in the area, first responders, military or anyone really, it’s just so rewarding and inspiring to be a part of something that is so involved in the community.
In 2007, while building Corps Fitness, Kaag also began acting as a public speaker. Since he started, he’s spoken at the University of Scranton, Penn State Berks, local hospitals, rehab centers and a litany of other locations, offering words of encouragement and hope.
“I do it to allow people both able-bodied and disabled to take something away from my experience,” said Kaag. “I’ve been doing it for over 10 years, it’s helped me live more fulfilled because I’m dedicating my life to the service of others, which helps me focus on other things besides my own challenges.”