Melissa McKenzie, Wellness Coordinator: Fitness On The Front Lines

Published on September 22, 2023

Wellness Coordinator, Melissa McKenzie, poses with an exercise ball, smiling at the camera.

Melissa McKenzie is the Wellness Coordinator for the Denver Sheriff Department (DSD). But, like most stories, hers isn’t straightforward. She was born and raised in the Denver metro area, was an athlete in high school, and went on to graduate from the University of Colorado at Denver with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. Before graduating, however, she attended CU Boulder where she gained weight, a few more than the traditional “freshman 15.” She decided to hire a personal trainer who showed her how to transform her physique drastically. People of all genders started approaching her in the gym with fitness questions that she couldn’t answer – she knew what was good for her, but not what was good for them. 

Melissa McKenzie, Wellness Coordinator, stands in profile in the middle of sandy desert.  
Undisclosed location in Southeast Asia

Melissa was inspired. While working for the Boulder Police Department (BPD), she attended post-secondary school at the National Personal Training Institute where she graduated at the top of her class, earning her credentials as a personal trainer. Despite her psychology degree and future intentions, her career shifted gears when injured BPD officers who were required to pass a physical agility test to return to patrol were failing. Desperate and not wanting to lose their jobs, these officers came to her and asked for training so they could pass these assessments. This changed the course of her career. 

She has utilized her psychology degree throughout her health and wellness career, however. In fact, it would be challenging not to. People tend to struggle in this area of life – they get caught up in trying to treat the symptoms instead of modifying their behavior, becoming emotionally aware, and addressing the root cause(s) of the problem. She uses psychological tactics with all her clients with motivational interviews to help them understand what the true challenges of training tend to be.  

Melissa McKenzie, Wellness Coordinator, waves at the camera from atop a camel on the shoreline of the sea.  
Undisclosed location in Southeast Asia

As a fitness professional for the past 18 years, Melissa has grown to know and love the diversity of her field. Melissa advanced her career as a personal training instructor and department manager at multiple colleges. So, when she was presented with the opportunity to be contracted as a personal trainer throughout Southeast Asia for our deployed troops of the United States Military and other International Forces, she took it.

Melissa was contracted throughout Southeast Asia for seven years. She worked at Al-Udeid Air Force Base Doha, Qatar, Al-Jaber Air Force Base At-Tawil Kuwait, and Bagram Air Base Afghanistan. These experiences were incredibly impactful – life changing – and if offered the opportunity again, she would take it (only in certain countries and no more war zones!). Her perspective on the military and law enforcement officers changed and her respect for these people increased tremendously. Before deployment, all contractors were required to complete extensive training and obtain secret clearance for accessing classified information. She went through in-depth Geneva Convention training and assimilations of what to do in the event she became a prisoner of war. She had gas mask training, was issued devices, and had to study the cultural norms and etiquette. 

Melissa McKenzie, Wellness Coordinator, holds a firehose while in a silver jumpsuit and protective helmet with face shield, leaning back into another person dressed similarly bracing her by the shoulders.  
Undisclosed location in Southeast Asia

In Doha, she lived on base, residing in trailers. A contractor’s status determined if they roomed with someone or by themselves. The showers and restrooms were in “hard structures” they called “Cadillacs” that doubled as bunkers where they could shelter in place in the event of a missile attack. Even showering was an adjustment, with shower shoes a must, time constraints were in place with “combat shower” expectations, meaning 2 to 3 minutes. Melissa couldn’t comply despite her best intentions. They could leave base in Doha, but always with a partner or as a group. Not in Afghanistan, though. Leaving base was prohibited and she had no desire to leave, anyhow. There, contractors lived in “soft structures” that were surround by very large cement T-walls that acted as a barrier for Taliban missiles and rockets that were launched at them. She walked around in a bulletproof vest a lot of the time. One of the most unexpected things, Melissa noticed, was that Afghan locals worked on base as support staff.  They went through rigorous background checks, but K9s weren’t trained to detect parts of the suicide bomb some of them smuggled onto the base, hidden within canasters of sugar. It took five years to smuggle in all the parts and assemble them in their workplace on base. Then, one day, they detonated it at the Father’s Day 5K run. 

Melissa McKenzie, Wellness Coordinator, smiles at the camera as she sits on the circular brick pony wall of an oversized oyster water feature.  
Undisclosed location in Southeast Asia

In Kuwait, Melissa and fellow contractors roomed together in a fully furnished two-bedroom, two-bathroom villa (that she thought was super cool) with a full kitchen and living room. They even had vehicles and drivers. And even though they lived together, they worked opposite schedules, so it never felt crowded. The crime rate is very low in Middle Eastern countries, and it is very culturally diverse. The currency exchange rate is high, so a lot of other country nationals get work visas to live in these countries. Most of these countries are English speaking because of the amount of diversity, but there were language barriers and cultural differences. Islam is the primary religion in the Middle East – they respected their practices of structured prayer and observance of Ramadan. It was in their best interest, though; if caught doing anything that went against these religious practices during Ramadan, like drinking water in public during hours of fasting, it could result in arrest. Also, camels are very sacred and, if hit by a car, the driver would end up in jail.

While deployed, Melissa’s work was centered around boosting troop morale, welfare, and recreational events. Her main area of responsibility was providing fitness engagements for the troops, including holiday fun runs, core sport team leagues, preparation for physical testing, fitness classes, bodybuilding competitions, and on and on. She was responsible for building out programing that would keep soldiers entertained because they were going out on missions and, sadly, didn’t always return. Melissa was deeply affected this – it was hard to grasp that this was real life! One of the bases she was stationed at held Fallen Warrior ceremonies before flying fallen soldiers back to the states. She attended far too many of these ceremonies and thinking about it still brings tears to her eyes.

Melissa McKenzie, Wellness Coordinator, stands with a group of 21 people in front of projector screen inside of a room.  
Undisclosed location in Southeast Asia

All of this to say, Melissa’s experiences have been unintentionally surrounded by people in law enforcement and the military. Becoming a personal trainer wasn’t the career she had anticipated finding herself in. People are always fascinated by her experiences and how she arrived at her current spot in life. Frankly, she is, too. When the door opened for her to come into the Wellness Coordinator position with the DSD, she didn’t hesitate. It was a divine promotion because she wasn’t looking, but it was there. There are a lot of people who are motivated to serve their communities, but I find fulfillment in serving those who serve others.

Working with law enforcement has heightened her perspective on the vastness of wellness: sleep deprivation, fatigue, financial factors, resiliency, work-life-balance, spirituality, and other key factors outside of fitness and nutrition also need to be considered in the overall health of each person and are all equally important. Yes, she has many years of experience in the fitness realm – she can write a fitness program in her sleep – but mental and emotional challenges are real and clearly affect law enforcement officers at a higher rate than civilians. To complicate matters even more, this topic has historically been kept secret. Her psychology degree was not in vain. She stays abreast of what is happening in her field and adapts accordingly. She is a viable and treasured resource at the Denver Sheriff Department and there is no one else that does the job quite like she does.