Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu helps injured Soldiers adapt to their new normal
By Christopher Fields, Army Warrior Care and TransitionSCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii - All 14 Warrior Transition Battalions across the country have adaptive reconditioning programs to help support their Soldiers' efforts to recover and overcome their injuries or illness. However, the WTB at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii has one unique activity in their program that helps rehabilitate Soldiers both mentally and physically at the same time - Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art that focuses on close combat and ground fighting in an effort to get your opponent to submit. Staff Sgt. Peter Wang, a physical therapy specialist serving as a Squad Leader at the WTB, has studied Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for more than 12 years and earned his black belt in March; making him uniquely qualified to create and lead an adaptive Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu program at the WTB."This program is the first of its kind and it's a way for Soldiers to learn the techniques and principles of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which they can then apply to other areas of their life," Wang explained. "Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu offers something no other activity in the program can because it is a combat sport. It is all on you, in order to be successful in an art you are forced to be resilient and think critically. Imagine trying to solve a Rubik's Cube under water while a shark is chasing you... The mental clarity you find and experience from the effects of this art is like no other."Studies regarding the therapeutic impact of Brazilian jiu-jitsu training are just beginning. Earlier this year, Military Medicine published an article detailing a recent experiment in which, "study participants demonstrated clinically meaningful improvements in their [post-traumatic stress disorder] symptoms as well as decreased symptoms of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety and decreased alcohol use."(Willing, et al., 2019).
Sgt. Justin Nagashima began practicing the sport in 2008 before joining the Army and it was something he loved to do. After sustaining injuries from deployment, developing combat anxiety and falling into depression, Nagashima was no longer able to train in the sport he loved and found himself in a dark place. His anxiety has made it hard for him to get out and be in crowds. When he heard about the program Wang started, he pushed himself to attend and he is thankful that he did."This has me smiling for the first time in a long time. Brazilian jiu-jitsu was a way of life for me for a long time and I lost that," an emotional Nagashima said after completing his first training session in a year and two months removed from shoulder surgery. "It's all about angles and adjusting to them to get the upper hand on your opponent. It's the same with life, sometimes you have to see something from a different angle and get that new perspective of how to attack it."As a physical therapy specialist, Wang knows how to adapt this art based on an individual's injury and limitations. Something he says this art is all about; being able to understand the principles of leverage in order to maximize your strengths, while working around your limitations."The goal is to get your opponent to submit, so you have to be able to overcome the situation you're in, just like recovering from an injury," Wang said. "[Brazilian jiu-jitsu] also helps rebuild confidence, gives people a sense of empowerment, and you develop a sense of comradery with your training partner as you sweat and at times maybe bleed together because they literally have your health in their hands. The trust you build with your training partners/teammates is similar to the relationships you form when you're in a deployed setting."The sparring sessions are used to pressure test your techniques. It is always controlled and conducted only with other instructors. The pressure tests create realistic scenarios to enable the Soldier to learn how to execute the techniques against a fully resisting opponent. The ability to overcome the hardships they experience on the matt is something the Soldier can carry over to their everyday life."I started offering this class to Soldiers because it's a great way to combat [post-traumatic stress disorder] and psychological traumas. When you have someone trying to make you submit, your focus has to be on the present moment, all the other worries go away when you're in that moment," Wang said. "Experiencing that level of focus can be extremely beneficial, many describe the experience to be very therapeutic, similar to meditation."Sgt. Kristal Baradi is one Soldier who says training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has had a positive impact in helping her PTSD. "Staff Sgt. Wang is my squad leader and he said it could help with PTSD," Baradi said. "I've been doing it for about 3-4 months and it is helping because with the PTSD I do have anger management issues. This is a controlled environment where I can release that anger, but at the same time, it is not a safety hazard. It gives me that sense of having to trust other people that they aren't going to hurt me."While Wang will not be assigned to the WTB forever to oversee the program, he is currently developing civilian staff members who have continuity in the organization to take over the program to ensure it endures and continues to prosper long after his tour is done."This program will be around for a long time because we have civilian staff who are invested and involved to ensure that happens," Wang said. "Injured Soldiers need to learn the balance of how to accept their limitations, whatever they may be, and fight to overcome them so they can go on and thrive in life. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a tool that provides the mindset to help them figure it out and be successful."