By Jon Micheal Connor, Army Public AffairsMarch 22, 2019
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Going to work, the dining facility, gym, and to bed is what many people do over and over while deployed here. But it can get monotonous.
One such activity, however, that can shake things up is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu originates from the traditional Japanese martial art form of it. According to internet sources, the first Jiu-Jitsu/judo school in Brazil opened in 1909. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a combat sport that focuses on grappling with particular emphasis on ground fighting. Central to this is the skill of controlling an opponent in ways that force one to submit.
Since it is easier to control on the ground than in a standing position, much of the technique of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is focused on the skill of taking an opponent down to the ground and wrestling for control to defeat him.
It's certainly not for video gamers or karaoke types, but it does offer many things to different people.
The Bagram Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu team meets three times weekly on the "Disney" side of BAF and also offers some intertwined instruction on judo, wrestling, and combatives based on the experience of its members.
Often, loud music is played through a sound system during warm-up and training. When there is actual instruction, the music goes down.
"We play all sorts of music from Spanish to Eighties," said Steven Zylstra, a student on the team. "Music serves many purposes. First of all, it fills the void of silence while people spar and covers the noises of sparring. It also serves to take the students out of their own minds. If you focus on the music then you get out of your own head and don't overthink things. It also helps with breathing. If one sings along to the songs then they will not hyperventilate and use all their oxygen. It controls breathing."
Zylstra, deployed with the Army Corps of Engineers, works as a senior network administrator, and has been with the team for four years.
"My role is primarily as a student, but I also maintain the Facebook page as well, as I have been the continuity for the group over the years," explained Zylstra. "[Other students] joke that it is my group, but it is everybody's group."
He added that he does the coordination with the gym regarding class times and any special events the team may conduct.
To the best of his knowledge, the team dates back to about 2011, and possibly before that. And while there is no competitions against any other organization in Afghanistan, Zylsra said there may have been base-wide tournaments in the past.
One of the team coaches was soon leaving to redeploy back to the States. Florida Army National Guardsman 1st Lt. Shawn Lunghi arrived here in June for a nine-month tour. When not soldiering, he is a deputy sheriff.
"I started training in Jiu-Jitsu about six, seven years ago," Lunghi said, adding that he had wrestled in high school, club level while in college, and helped coached high school wrestling for a couple of years.
"I found Jiu-Jitsu back home and fell in love with it," he said.
While there are some comparisons to wrestling, Lunghi said a big difference is if you're on your back in wrestling, your losing, but in Jiu-Jitsu that's a good place to be.
"In Jiu-Jitsu, you want to be dangerous from your back … you want to be attacking from your back," Lunghi said, explaining that was a hard transition from him to make.
Two other members of organization are Hosanna Keeley and Teina Tahauri.
Both are contractors. One is a young woman and the other a not-so-young man. One has two years with the team and the other as of this coverage, five lessons. But both share a strong desire to learn this sport.
"There's not a lot to do around here" at night, explained Keeley, 25, who works for a company providing analyst support regarding counterintelligence.
"I was a little intimidated but I was drawn to Jiu-Jitsu because I read up on it," Keeley said. Part of what she learned were the techniques and leverage used in it so a smaller person like herself would not be at a disadvantage if properly used.
Likewise, Tahauri, 51, despite being much bigger, said he felt intimidated too at the beginning of his lessons. He works for a company that provides base support, such as operations and maintenance for the dining facilities and transportation on base. Specifically, he runs the Emergency Operations Center of his company regarding company personnel being injured, or incurring illnesses, etc.
Compared to those already in the class, Tahauri described himself initially as weaker and frail, but that eventually changed.
"I kept showing up. The warm-ups. I would just get exhausted from the warm-ups because my cardio was in bad shape and I really don't like [going to] the gym," he explained.
"I was very intimidated. Everybody was in pretty good shape. And I was worried about getting crushed. I thought that was like the end of the world," Tahauri said. "You learn that's part of the learning process. And you learn to trust your classmates that a submission is nothing more than a lesson to what you need to do differently."
Asked if this was a young person's sport, Lunghi said it is not.
"No, absolutely not, no!" he said. "You only go as hard as you want" and that it's something a person can do into their 70s.
For Keeley, learning how to defend herself was a big reason for getting involved with Jiu-Jitsu.
"Definitely self-defense … as a small person that's something I've always thought about and been sort of worried about" despite no attacks in her life. "But, I feel like as a female it kind of is the back of your mind."
In contrast, Tahauri said he got involved initially for physical fitness.
"I wanted an opportunity to get in better shape to do something that I would enjoy enough to leave work and come and do. I never realized all the extra skills I'd learn about controlling my body … learning about to improve [my] self-defense. All I wanted to do was get in better shape," Tahauri said, who's been married 30 years.
Odd as it sounds, Tahauri likens Jiu-Jitsu to a game of chess.
"This is a chess match. This is chess," he said.
"It took me months just to remember to breathe because I would be panicked and worried," Tahauri said of sparring. Some team members would tell him to breathe as his face was turning red. He realized he had to calm down.
Eventually he started to think about where his opponents' feet and hands were, what will they do next, and what does he need to do to counter act -- a defensive or offensive move?
Lunghi too made a comparison to chess.
"It's a puzzle. It's challenging," he said. "It's a chess game. You're trying to outsmart your opponent.
"And it's art form that allows a guy like me, who's a smaller-framed guy, to be able to compete with big guys as long as my technique is good, my timing is good."
But for Keeley, she said it more like a "fire hose" right now of information. "There's so much, just trying to keep the basics in mind. There's so much information."
Part of her challenge too is that Keeley said she like's having her personal space. In this sport, this simply is not possible.
"So just being that close to someone can make you forget everything" regarding strategy, she said. "What am I doing? That's the part of the challenge I think … get out of your comfort zone."