CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- The Soldiers are exhausted before they ever get on the mat.

Master Sgt. Raymond Alston, the U.S. Army Central combatives instructor, chides them on, talking to the students from the pushup position.

"You're still here?" Alston says.

All but two Soldiers have already dropped out of the formation and jog laps around the interior walls of the gym. It's 8 a.m. Monday, June 27, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, where the temperatures are already climbing to more than 120 degrees outside and bleeding into the workout area.

"All right, 20 more," Alston says, beginning his own repetitions as the two begin again.

Finally, the last Soldier hits muscle failure: The first day of Army Combatives Level 1 is ready to begin.

There is an underlying purpose to the instructor's early morning smoke session.

"A lot of people ask why we do so much (physical training) when this is combatives," said Alston, a Brooklyn, New York native. "I want them to begin tired. I don't want people using their muscles to win. I want them to be forced to use the techniques we teach them to escape their opponents."

Camp Arifjan hosts a new entry level combatives class every other month. The classes are in high demand, averaging more than 30 students per cycle, according to the cadre. Many of the students are non-combat job Soldiers who are looking to improve on their abilities beyond rifle marksmanship to protect themselves and others.

Alston, who has taught combatives for more than 10 years, sees an increasing desire from Soldiers in support military occupations to train for any tactical situation.

"We have a lot of missions going into different areas of operations where the mentality can't always be that you shoot first, so you have to be able to defend yourself in hand-to-hand combat," Alston said.

"If you are in an area where you can't pull your weapon because of a lot of collateral damage, you have to able to defend yourself without a weapon. Or, if you have a weapon and your opponent does not, it is going to be a fight for that weapon. You have to be able to defend yourself and keep your weapon away from your opponent."

The forward environment gives Soldiers a rare chance to take not just the first level of training, but also continue the training to the second and third levels--something that would typically take longer than a deployment to accomplish.

Level I is the basic foundation for hand-to-hand combat with tactical emphasis. Basically, the course teaches four dominant positions to execute moves and continue further training through Level II, tactical combatives, and Level III-IV, the master combatives course.

"Level I is the appetizer for the meat and potatoes of Level II and Level III-IV," Alston said. "With those, you have to Army's fight plan: close the distance, gain the dominant position, and finish the fight."

Each day in the 40-hour Level I class, the Soldiers spend hours working
through their moves and "rolling" against larger and smaller opponents to get practice in a real setting.

The class can be grueling. By the final days, the students have ripped uniforms and purple bruises on their arms and legs. But nearly all of them are wearing a smile heading into their final roll session Friday afternoon.

"You have to be a little courageous to take this class," said Spc. Jonathan Harris from O'Fallon, Illinois, a radiology specialist for Tactical Medical Center at Camp Arifjan.

Harris says he has always wanted to get involved in combatives, but didn't have the opportunity until getting sent to Kuwait. Now that he has finished the course, he says it taught him how to be a more resilient and prepared Soldier.

"You are going to get hit. You are going to get thrown down a lot. They push you to your limits here," Harris said.

The combatives students say ultimately the course is as much mental training as it is physical training.

The first opponent Lt. Rebecca Tracy, a registered nurse for the 10th Combat Support Hospital, faced was a male Soldier, who was by her estimate 6 feet 3 inches tall and at least 240 pounds.

"It was a little intimidating," said Tracy, a Portland, Maine native. "But, you know you have to do it. It is a mental challenge you just have to overcome."

Tracy finished among the top four Soldiers in the class, who would go on to fight in a four-way tournament for the title of honor graduate.

"You fall and you get hurt and you get bruised and you get black eyes, but you keep going," she said.