A time for second chances: 42nd MP Bde. combatives team counting on a better outcome this year
February 25, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Specialist Sean Shanahan looks at combatives, the Army's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu-based style of hand-to-hand fighting, much like he does life: You get knocked down, you get back up.
"It transfers over to everything you do in life," Shanahan says in between ground grappling matches at the combatives facility on JBLM's east side through heavy breaths. "If life puts you in a headlock, are you going to give up or will you keep going?"
Shanahan, a military policeman with the 504th Military Police Battalion, 42nd MP Brigade, will compete this year, just like he did the last, for his brigade's combatives team during the installation's 2012 tournament in April.
Last year referees called Shanahan's fight during his third match and just two rounds away from finals, but this year he's putting in more time, more effort and more sacrifice to return a stronger opponent.
And today, in a soaked uniform, his face pouring sweat onto the mat below, it's clear Shanahan, who has shown up to practice on his weekend, is making good use of second chances.
A fight cut short
Shanahan, a Reedsburg, Wis., native, wrestled in college for four years. He took fighting seriously.
He still wears his university's wrestling team sweatshirt when he shows up to practice with his combatives crew -- and he wears it proudly.
But combatives and Jiu-Jitsu -- they're different, he says.
"Coach slaps my head almost every day saying, 'you can't wrestle out here. You can't be muscling; it takes patience," Shanahan says.
"With wrestling, you want to go hard and fast," he says. "You want to break your opponent; you want to pin them. And here you have to stay cool and calm."
Last year, Shanahan says, he had six days to prepare for the tournament. And he went in with only one goal: Have some fun.
During his third fight, however, the mindset changed.
Shanahan found himself up against a Special Forces Soldier he could see was well trained.
But he had gained the upper hand on his competitor. He was winning the match 3-1.
"It got serious," he says. "I turned it on."
Soon the tables turned and Shanahan's opponent had him in an arm bar -- a tight spot for any fighter. Shanahan managed to slip out, but the fight was already over.
"I ripped out, and the ref said, 'stop,'" he recalls.
He had slipped out of the arm bar but, in doing so, he grunted loudly -- grounds, under the rulebook, for what refs refer to as a 'verbal tap.' If an opponent seems to voice a considerable amount of pain, or it looks as though he or she won't escape from a lock, the fight is called for safety.
"No one ever likes losing," says Shanahan, reflecting on the day. "But in my experience, you've got to take your losses."
Now, he's making some big changes. He eats better and trains more on cardio than ever before. He quit chewing tobacco, and he doesn't drink alcohol. And he has introduced Crossfit workouts to his training regimen.
And this year his preparation started months before -- not days.
"This year I'm not thinking about last year," he says. "It's like hitting a refresh button."
And his expectations for himself are clear.
"I'm definitely going to go out there and do some work on people," he says. "If I don't make semis or win this dang thing I'm going to be pretty upset.
"You can't look ahead that far; you just have to go, 'I'm going to do this that first round, and then I'm going to keep going.'"
Close but no cigar
Corporal Justin Papke has to leave practice early today, but he has stopped in nevertheless to fit in a good morning workout.
Papke trained last year with the team, and he trained hard. But an unexpected injury nixed his participation in the tournament.
During a practice grapple last year, just a few days before weigh-in for the competition, Papke suffered a rolled rib. He explains it as a case in which a rib bone twists at the point where it connects to the spine.
"It's horrible -- like I just failed," says Papke, a Longview, Wash., native and mechanic with the 508th MP Bn. "I worked so hard to get there, and then I just had a sharp pain and went to get seen, and they threw the red flags."
Papke says that during matches the brigade held to weed out some of the less experienced fighters interested in competing for the team he had barely made the cut -- a realization that caused his drop from the team to sting even more.
"With the injury and not competing I just felt that I let everyone down -- my teammates, my coach," says Papke, who used to skateboard in high school and admits that back then wrestling and martial arts were nowhere near his agenda.
But Papke is using his disappointment in himself as leverage to fight harder, to do better.
"This year is kind of like a make-up to show, 'hey, I could've done this last year, plus some,'" he says.
"I'm trying to step it up a bit and actually do good."
Papke's aggressive grunts and huffs as he pushes his limits during the workout on the mat make the room sound like a torture house. It's almost difficult to listen to.
As he runs through stations of various cardio and total-body exercises, dripping sweat across the floor and looking half dead on the outside, he makes his motives known.
"I'm taking it more serious," he says. "I'm watching what I eat and how I eat. I'm doing a more intense workout in the morning and afternoon.
"I feel excellent, and I feel I'm on the right track."
And like Shanahan, Papke has a simple yet definitive goal for the tournament.
"I'd like to make it at least to the semi-finals," he says. "I'd like to come out with my hand raised and go to the finals."
A coach with another shot
Staff Sgt. Clifton Roberts led the brigade's team to a third-place finish overall last year. Then, he thought, he was done.
"It was my last big thing to do with the brigade," says the Roy, Wash., native, who had planned on leaving the Army as his term of service ended.
But other plans prevailed.
An injury sustained during a competition fight a couple of years prior prompted a medical evaluation board for Roberts.
The MEB process, which typically takes several months and years in some cases, determines a Soldier's future -- to remain in the Army or not -- based off injuries and conditions.
Roberts knew he would have a little more quality time with Army than he'd anticipated.
The blessing in disguise gave Roberts the opportunity to train up a combatives team for his brigade one more time.
"Now, I'm in a medical board, so I'm here a little bit longer, and they're allowing me to train up another team, which is great for me," Roberts says. "I love this sport, I love training Soldiers, and this is just a perfect match for what I love to do."
And with a chance like this, he's squandering no time -- sparing no expectations.
"This year my only goal is for first place," he says. "I've got high hopes. High, high hopes for them. They're going to be top notch."
Roberts found interest in martial arts in elementary school. He wrestled for nine years, trained off and on in Jiu-Jitsu and started with Army combatives in 2006.
Roberts says last year his team was, as a whole, very inexperienced with combatives and not at all experienced with tournaments. Only one person, he says, had actually been certified in the first of four levels of training the Army offers.
But this year is a sharp contrast of new hope. So far more than 45 Soldiers have tried out for Roberts's team, which hasn't yet been whittled down to its official lineup. Last year only 22 showed interest.
And with Soldiers like Shanahan and Papke returning, this year's team has more experience, both with competing and fighting as a whole.
"All the guys we have returning -- they have a taste of what it was like to be there," Roberts says. "They have the experience now.
"The intensity level during the workouts is off the charts for those few, and it's great to have them in the gym so the rest can see it, and then try to emulate that and work as hard as them."
Roberts said that more hopefuls trying out for his team this year will result in a more refined, skilled and hungrier group.
"It breeds more competition," he says.
"If you only have one guy in your weight class you're not too concerned about losing your spot, so you just relax," he says. "But when you have a lot of guys trying to compete for that one spot, you need to make sure you're good and you know your stuff."
Roberts says his situation -- a trainer of Jiu-Jitsu and a mentor to Soldiers -- is all a noncommissioned officer with nine years in the Army can ask for.
"I absolutely love this sport and to be able to pass on what I have in my head to other Soldiers."
And for Papke, the feeling is mutual.
"Hopefully I can get this team and Staff Sgt. Roberts some recognition for what he has done and what he has put us through to get us to the level we're at," he says.
"It's at least a time where I can say, 'this is what I can do.'"
The brigade will hold an in-house tournament March 12 to determine who will officially make the cut.