The small group of Soldiers arrives before the sun, removes their footwear and takes to the mat. These Soldiers are dedicated to learning the positions and skills that will help them succeed at the All Army Combatives Tournament scheduled for Sept. 18-20 at Fort Benning, Ga.

The Army Combatives program, a four-level system, was developed from Brazilian Jujitsu techniques to teach Soldiers how to engage and defend against enemies in close combat situations.

The Fort Bliss Combatives team will have a month to prepare for the tournament, but Staff Sgt. James C. Vanwert, 3rd Battalion, 360th Regiment, 5th Armored Brigade, 1st U.S.Army, has trained rigorously for the past six months.

As the primary combatives instructor at McGregor Range, N.M., Vanwert is responsible for teaching an eight-hour version of the Army combatives program to units slated to deploy. Combatives is not only his personal passion but a professional niche for the staff sergeant within the Army.

"I love everything about combatives. It's so technical and beautiful," said Vanwert, a Spokane, Wash. native, who deployed to Iraq in 2003.

Vanwert originally enlisted as a heavy machine operator, his involvement with Army combatives grew from impromptu boxing matches to alleviate the stress and boredom of deployment. Upon returning to the United States he was tapped by the 70th Regional Readiness Command, headquartered in Seattle, Wash., to create a program for Army reservists.

Since then Vanwert has spent a majority of his time teaching combatives at different military installations, across military services.

"The combatives system has proven itself," he said. "[Through combatives], instead of Soldiers going into a fight empty-handed and not knowing what to do, maybe breaking the rules of engagement out of fear, they know exactly how to control someone, how to take an uncontrollable situation and control it."

The most common mistake when Soldiers begin learning combatives is to rely on force and not technique, said Vanwert.

"If you get into a situation when you are fighting in war, the fight might not end with one person. A lot of people use all their energy in the first 30 seconds," said Vanwert.
Stamina is also key for the All Army Combatives Tournament, which depending upon the result of the opening match, might require anywhere from 6-10 matches, because a loss places the Soldier in a separate bracket and increases the number of potential matches.

At last year's competition, Vanwert was hampered by an injury, poor nutrition habits and nervousness. This year, the fighter said, he is far more prepared.

When Vanwert is not teaching combatives to Soldiers, he trains with D.J. Blackwell, the Fort Bliss combatives team instructor, five times a week, utilizes the local canyons to bike and run, spars and practices striking.

"Staff Sgt. Vanwert is disciplined and dedicated," said Eric J. Howard, combatives specialist for the Fort Bliss Mission Support Element. In addition to organizing and coordinating the team, his focus is on integrating combatives into units' wartime mission.

"From what I've seen, he embodies all the criteria that make up a great martial artist, and he is a great example of the Warrior Ethos for his unit," Howard said.

Combatives increases confidence and mental acuity, said Vanwert. Changing the lives of Soldiers is his personal motivation to excel and train hard.

His goal is to improve on his fifth place finish at last year's All Army Combatives Tournament and compete in the final free-fight round.