Making It

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, July 1, 2007

Eleven exercise club clients are gasping and grunting their way through a military-style training program at VIDA Fitness in Verizon Center. At the front of the room stands 28-year-old Antoine Robinson: bald, tattooed and muscular, and sounding very much like the Army drill sergeant he used to be.

"Get your bellies off the floor!" he barks. "C'mon, I'm looking at you!"

The three men and eight women are more-than-willing victims; most have been taking Antoine's Military Challenge class for several months. "It's a fabulous workout," says Tracy Langlois, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom from the District, who finishes the punishing regimen with a smile.

Though he doesn't betray this when he's teaching -- comments such as "Stop cheating that body; use it!" seemingly outnumber "Good job" by 50 to 1 -- her instructor is proud of his students' progress. And though he clings to some Army habits -- he still shaves his head -- Antoine is grateful that, unlike some of his peers, he has landed in a civilian job he loves.

Antoine grew up in Richmond and was working as a personal trainer in Washington when he enlisted in 2002 "to get a better handle on what was going on and see what I could do to help," he says. He served three four-month tours in Iraq as a forward observer, scouting out enemy positions and helping direct artillery fire. "You really don't have too much time to reflect," he says. ". . . You're basically happy that you lived through the situation."

Between deployments, Antoine completed airborne, air assault and ranger schools with honors. When he helped some friends survive the rigorous ranger program, which has a 70 percent failure rate, his superiors noted his talent for whipping the ill-prepared into shape and had him develop a training course.

Antoine hadn't planned on an Army career. But as the end of his five-year enlistment approached, he had trouble finding work. "Especially for combat-oriented soldiers, there are not many job opportunities outside of security or police," he says. In a 2006 survey by, one in five veterans said landing a civilian job took six months or longer; one in 10 said it took more than a year.

As luck would have it, Antoine, who was helping fellow soldiers prepare for airborne and ranger schools, was leading a run through Washington last fall when he spied the new VIDA Fitness and introduced himself to the founders. "Certain people have great energy about them, and he's one of them, and we hired him on the spot," says owner David von Storch. "He has a tremendous demeanor, as well as knowledge about what he's doing."

The boot-camp-style program Antoine designed for VIDA has taken off, and now he's holding eight classes a week (two outdoors), as well as serving as a personal trainer and manager at the fitness center.

The Gaithersburg resident earns a little more than the $31,000 the Army had been paying him annually, and "I'm fine with that," he says. "Like I enjoyed my job in the military, I really enjoy my job, because it does help me to help other people."

His flexible schedule also allows him time with his wife, Arleen Gathoni, a nurse, and 2-year-old son Zion, who isn't awed by his drill-instructor daddy. "He laughs at me when I make angry faces," says Antoine, adding that, appearances to the contrary, "I'm the most laid-back person ever."

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