“They sicken of the calm who knew the storm.”
I don’t have a military background, but I am proud to support our troops and to remember and honor all of those who lost their lives in the performance of their military duties. So, it came as a shock to me when I heard data shared in the Veteran Association’s 2020 Annual Report on Mental Health, stating that, on average, 17.6 veterans died by suicide every single day in 2018 (source). That is 6,453 in a year: the equivalent of every player on the NFL roster taking their lives four times over every year.
This fact shocked and alarmed me and feels, quite frankly, unacceptable.
I set out to write this article to learn about and raise awareness for this terrible problem I didn’t understand and see if there was any practical application to something I do know about: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The result is an extraordinary glimmer of hope in an otherwise appalling set of circumstances.
Aces spoke to Dr. Gino Collura, who completed his dissertation at the University of Southern Florida on the topic of jiu-jitsu as a means of reassimilation for veterans (source), and the conversation was shocking.
Firstly, despite what people may think about our species’ history of warfare, “we are not designed to strategically and methodically take the life of one another,” and to do so is undoubtedly traumatic regardless of how distanced one is from that process.
Inter-species killing is abnormal even in the broader animal kingdom. Gino cites the Piranha as a great example of this: while it swarms in a frenzy and consumes food with its teeth, while vying for dominance amongst its own species, it flicks out with its tail instead. It is ‘natural’ to physically ‘rut’ but atypical to take the life of another member of the same species.
Unfortunately, this is unavoidable in the military, and our soldiers are conditioned through research-backed training to proactively and efficiently engage and eliminate the enemies of the United States. Gino states that this necessary evil can cause significant disruption to an individual’s sense of identity at the surface level.
“John Smith, who is a father, friend, husband, or son is deployed…” Operating on instinct and falling back on near-automatic training, a conflict of identity often occurs when he returns from deployment. His warrior identity and his civilian identity are at odds with each other. Moreover, operating in these high-stress conflict zones can have an extraordinary level of automatic behavior. The emotional processing of events can occur hours, days, weeks, or even months after the physical event.
As a society, we like to separate and label issues to rationalize them. Gino refers to a concept called ‘neuroplasticity.’ It is terminology describing the fluidity between our physiological, mental, and even existential needs. They are all intricately connected and not separate. People who experience trauma can often experience rumination about specific events, guilt, anxiety. Then, when they courageously seek help on their issues, they often run into the culture of ‘diagnose and prescribe’ instead of actual treatment.
What can jiu-jitsu do to help?
Jiu-Jitsu, particularly for a veteran who has experienced trauma, offers a wealth of benefits that help to indirectly treat some of the issues faced by people who have returned from operational deployments and their reassimilation into society:
At the surface level, it offers a reliable routine: often something ex-military personnel miss. Classes are typically set in a fixed timetable and follow an iterative structure. You know precisely what you are going to get and when. It also offers a uniform ranked structure, where everyone is aware of their place within that hierarchy.
Jiu-jitsu’s emphasis is on constant self-mastery where the common goal is always to be better than the day before. It also creates a collective identity not atypical of the military and its various sub-structures. For instance, there may be a sibling rivalry between the USMC and the Army or the Air Force. This same pride and rivalry between Checkmat Carlson Gracie and Gracie Barra exist on the jiu-jitsu mats.
Soldiers can co-exist with fellow BJJ students in an environment where it is acceptable to make mistakes while simulating a level of physicality and violence that is atypical in day-to-day interactions in Western society. If I try something and get stuck in a triangle, I can tap. This decision might seem obvious, but struggling to re-assimilate is a challenge for someone hardwired to violent tendencies.
Jiu-jitsu, as a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy or ‘play therapy,’ can help encourage someone to pause and reset in situations that might be triggering both in and outside of their academy. This ability to pause and think through a problem instead of just reacting can have a life-changing impact.
The constant exposure to micro life or death moments is therapeutic as well. For example, when you tap, you essentially concede your own death or incapacitation, which surprisingly releases a cocktail of positive endorphins. Current practitioners are well aware of feeling euphoric for hours after rolling.
In a society where we are getting increasingly further apart, not helped at all by Covid-19, jiu-jitsu brings people together and breaks down conventional spacing and touch issues within a diverse environment through camaraderie, shared hardship, and belonging to something bigger than them.
What resources are available for those who want to get into Jiu-Jitsu?
The We Defy Foundation – Helping disabled combat veterans reclaim their lives through Jiu-Jitsu and fitness seeks to provide combat veterans coping with military-connected disabilities a long-term means to overcome their challenges through Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and fitness training.
They offer an extraordinary scholarship program through their website that seeks to match veterans with affiliated gyms to help get them into training, providing them with gis and rashguards and also tailored, nurturing advice in the form of mentorship as they progress along their journey.
TJ Kreutzer, VP of We Defy, explained in an interview with Aces Jiu Jitsu Club that their foundation’s biggest issue is funding and awareness. They can only accept a finite number of applicants each year because of limited resources. So, if you are interested in supporting their cause, I implore you to check out their website and donate—a follow-up article to detail their organization and the fantastic things they are doing in this space will be published soon on Aces.
I ask everyone reading to keep promoting the beauty of jiu-jitsu to anyone who you think would benefit from it. If you know of anyone struggling, confidential, free advice can be found at the links below.
Thank you to all who have served.
National Suicide Hotline – 800-273-8255
National Suicide Hotline Chatroom – Lifeline Chat: Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org)
Veteran’s Crisis Line – 800-273-8255 then press 1
Will is a UK/US dual citizen, a purple belt under Matt Arroyo in Tampa, Florida, who bounces between Florida and London and is an active competitor in MMA, CJJ IBJJF/sub-only Jiu-Jitsu.