When I was “deployed” to Qatar in 2007, we had a lot of free time on our hands. I was a young kid at 19 years old far away from home. Qatar is a country on the south east tip of Saudi Arabia and it is a pretty laid back place to be stationed. At that point in my life I was somewhat of an emotional turd. My childhood was filled with traumas and I was feeling very lonely at the time. I didn't have many friends and I felt like a loner at times. After a few months on that deployment Sgt Thomas came up to me and told me I wasn't allowed to sit in my room anymore. I could tell they all thought i was depressed. I was pretty socially awkward as I had been since I was a kid.
On post one day I talked to an army Sgt Kramer and we got to talking about martial arts. He was a purple belt in Jiu-Jitsu and I believe he was a lvl 4 modern army combatives instructor as well. He convinced me to give Jiu-Jitsu a chance. We found a spot and got some of the 1” blue pads and pushed them together. I figured, Sgt K was much smaller than i was and it would be a piece of cake. I’d have him tapping in no time. A few moments later i was waking up with Sgt K holding my feet up in the air. “What the hell just happened” I asked in confusion. Sgt K just laughed and said “That there is a rear naked choke, and you need to tap before you go to sleep”
About 3 times a week we would get together and work techniques and drill. I learned how to do multiple submissions and how to get into better positioning. Every single day I would get submitted over and over and over again. It was driving me nuts knowing that he knew everything I was trying to do. Every few weeks we would get another training partner and we eventually got around 8 people that would train regularly. I started to feel less socially awkward, I had less anxiety, and I started to feel a confidence I never had before.
I go back to the states from Qatar in November but was already on my way to Iraq by the end of February 2008. When we got into country the first thing I did was go around and try to find a place to train and search out training partners. Luckily, my friend Tommy was also a heavy gunner on my squad and he wanted to train Jiu-jitsu as well. In the small gym that we had we found a small set of mats and we would train a few times a week. In a world of constant anxiety being the lead gunner on a route clearance team searching for IED’s every day, I found peace and calmness through Jiu-jitsu.
Over time more and more people would train with us. I was blessed with a visit from the UFC USO tour when Joe Lauzon, Heath Herring, and Jorge Rivera. I rolled with Joe for about 15 minutes and got submitted about 20 times. It was a lot of fun and I feel like I gained a lot of experience just from talking to him and Jorge. It is definitely one of my favorite moments in my Jiu-jitsu journey.
When I returned to North Carolina in the fall of 2008, I decided to start training at a gym. I kept finding family through Jiu-Jitsu. I also started to realize my calm demeanor was due to training Jiu-Jitsu and was helping me in my social life as well. I started to make more friends with everyone in my squadron and started to realize that I didn't need to be on the defensive all the time. Unfortunately, when you are abused as a child you tend to have issues interacting with other people in your adult life. I found Jiu-Jitsu gave me courage, motivation to improve, and it calmed my anxiety to a level I have never experienced.
I drove up to try a Jiu-Jitsu tournament up in Virginia with my dad. I will never forget I won my very first Jiu-Jitsu match via armbar and it lit a fire in my heart that I had not experienced since my first goal in hockey. I lost my next match and was out of the tournament. Before we left the gym i had already signed up for the NAGA (North American Grappling Association) tournament a few weeks later. I drove up with my friend Larry and Hanna who were always extremely supportive of my Jiu-Jitsu adventure. I had 4 matches, the first 3 won via armbar and the last won by points. I had done something i thought was impossible a few months before. I won a NAGA samurai sword!
Eventually I was talked out of training any further because of the time it took away from my home life. I'm not going to get into that but I will say, NEVER quit your dreams for someone else. Do what makes you happy and those who love you will follow.
In 2014 I had been out of the military for about 2 years. I hated my life, me and my now ex wife hated each other, I was out of shape and fat at 210 lbs, and unfortunately I considered myself an alcoholic. PTSD had its grips on me and I was drinking massive amounts of alcohol, sneaking around to go to the bar and hiding it from everyone to try to escape. My friend Paul had asked if i wanted to check out this new gym up in Blaine, Minnesota. I went with to Tracks BJJ and met with Mark Mortensen. I found out Mark himself was an Air Force veteran. I did the typical “I trained and did a fight and bla bla bla”. No one cares just train. The first class I met a few of the regulars and I was instantly accepted into the gym. I was instantly hooked and decided I needed to train again.
After a failed suicide attempt (6 principles to excel your state of mind) I decided to go all in. When I say Jiu-Jitsu turned my life around, I absolutely attribute who I am as a person today to my decision to train Jiu-Jitsu. My coach and teammates treated me like family and made me feel like I was worth something again. Jiu-Jitsu was the first place I felt a sense of comradery and brotherhood that I had felt in the military. We would hang out after practice and talk about life or nonsense depending on the atmosphere. We trained together, fought together, and supported each other at competitions. We always went out for a beer after the tournaments and celebrated life events with each other.
Quite possibly my favorite group of training partners above. 5 of us are veterans.
I was noticing my drinking was affecting my performance and I found myself drinking less. The urge to drink was slowly drifting away. Jiu-Jitsu becomes a lifestyle after time if you train enough. I started eating healthier and realizing my body is a machine and I needed to make sure the right fuel was going in. I started to study nutrition and trying to optimize my diet so I could roll longer and compete at a higher level. Within 6 months of training, I received my blue belt from my coach and mentor Mark Mortensen. I had fought in an mma fight back in the fall of 2009 and decided I wanted to go for it again. I decided I wanted be a Jiu-Jitsu fighter and I wanted to win all of my fights with Jiu-Jitsu dominating the fight. I ended up going 3-0 and got a title shot that I ultimately lost to quite possibly one of the best armature welterweights in the nation. I achieved a goal I thought was impossible by fighting for a title with Jiu-Jitsu as my fighting style.
August 27th 2016. My opponent Yamah Sadozai and I, beat the snot out of each other for 3 rounds earning us fight of the night. I was victorious using Jiu-Jitsu and landing a rear naked choke in the beginning of the 3rd round.
I think about it like this. I was depressed, hiding my drinking, out of shape and feeling sorry for myself. Through Jiu-Jitsu I found out how to be a good man again. Nothing is more humbling than another man grabbing our neck and strangling you until you tap and you are proud for your partner. You shake hands after trying to manhandle each other, high five when you get caught by a move that was just taught. The feeling of pride when your teammate wins a tournament or a difficult match is hard to compare to. I learned how to care about others again as well as care about myself. My anxiety was practically gone and I no longer have that urge to constantly drink. I feel like Jiu-Jitsu has played a major role in my development in this crazy world and it has given me a new angle to view life. Ever since i started training Jiu-Jitsu in 2007, I have trained off and on. For some reason it keeps calling me back and I learn something about myself every time i am on the mats
PTSD can be crippling and for the first time in a long time I feel like I am in control again thanks to Jiu-Jitsu.
Anyone can change! All it takes is some motivation and something to fight for.
thanks for reading!
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Veterans sharing their experiences