FORT RILEY, Kan. - At some point along a long career in the U.S Army Soldiers may find themselves on the wrong end of a medical disability forcing them from military service. These conditions in most cases are quite limiting, and while it precludes these individuals from completing their service-related obligations, it should not keep them from participating in other physical activities. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, usually referred to as BJJ, is one such activity that while it may not seem like much on the surface, can carry Soldiers a long way on their road to recovery and their new normal. Its mental health benefits are known universally as exemplified by the numerous veterans programs that offer free scholarships, programs such as the WeDefy foundation and Veterans Jiu Jitsu. What is often forgotten is the positive physical benefits that BJJ has been shown to have on service members. BJJ improves mental health, is scalable and improves physical fitness.
It can be demoralizing when your medical conditions force you to abandon your favorite pastime activity, on top of no longer being able to complete military objectives. This can fester into restlessness and depression, that may lead to substance abuse and/or family complications. Conditions, physical or mental, will worsen when the individual migrates to a sedentary lifestyle. This is where BJJ comes in to save the mental health of our Soldiers and veterans. Marine Corps veteran, Robert Consulmagno, claims that he had become “complacent & destructive” once he had left the military in 1996; and until he got his conditions under control and through access to an outlet, he would not get better (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016). BJJ is a minimally demanding activity that encourages Soldiers to remain active and avoid self-destructive behaviors.
Perhaps one of the most valuable parts of wounded or injured Soldiers participating in BJJ is the ability to scale the difficulty based on limitations or injuries. In 2019, Staff Sergeant Peter Wang, a member of the Hawaii Soldier Recovery Unit (formerly the Warrior Transition Battalion, WTB) led the formation and implementation of BJJ into their curriculum for disabled Soldiers. “As a physical therapy specialist, Wang knows how to adapt this art based on an individual's injury and limitations” (U.S. Army, 2019). His actions impacted many; none more so than Sergeant Justin Nagashima, who after getting shoulder surgery could not find an activity that supported his new disabilities. After finding his way to Jiu Jitsu he not only regained his confidence, but found his way out of crippling depression. “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" (U.S. Army, 2019).
BJJ is an excellent form of physical exercise that improves cardiovascular health, muscular strength, flexibility, and overall fitness. For physically disabled Soldiers, it can be adapted to meet their specific physical capabilities, helping them maintain or improve their physical condition. Techniques can often be modified or adapted to accommodate various physical disabilities. This adaptability allows disabled soldiers to participate actively and safely in the sport. The practice of BJJ requires concentration, problem-solving, and strategic thinking, which can help in developing mental resilience. It’s also a great stress reliever, as the physical activity helps in the release of endorphins, the body's natural mood elevators (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2022). Mastering new skills and improving in BJJ can provide a significant confidence boost. For soldiers who may be struggling with their self-image due to their disabilities, this can be particularly empowering. BJJ training involves a lot of groundwork, which can be beneficial for those with balance issues. It helps in developing better coordination and body awareness. Learning and progressing in BJJ, like achieving new belts or successfully executing techniques, can provide a strong sense of accomplishment and purpose.
The benefits of BJJ for Soldiers are not only backed by numerous studies, but I have felt the positive effects of them first hand. I, a 31-year-old BJJ brown belt and a Sergeant First Class (SFC) in the Army, with11 years of service, have developed conditions that limit my abilities to run, ruck, and jump out of airplanes. Before undergoing hip surgery, I used to love running, and was quite good at it, but years of high impact training have taken a toll on my body. Today, I work at the Combatives facility on Fort Riley, where I, along with the NCIOC SFC, Juan Ortiz, and OIC MAJ Evan Perperis, mentor and train junior Soldiers on the lethality needed to maintain our fighting force. I may not be able to go full speed with them anymore due to my injuries, but I instruct service members who volunteer during their lunch time on how to improve themselves by way of Jiu Jitsu. If you’re struggling mentally or physically, I encourage you to train BJJ at a local gym or on base. You will find the benefits can be life changing, I know I have.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022, August 3). Stress management: Exercise and stress relief. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469
U.S. Army. (2019, November 26). Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu helps injured Soldiers adapt to their new normal. https://www.army.mil/article/230363/brazilian_jiu_jitsu_helps_injured_soldiers_adapt_to_their_new_normal
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2016, June 9). Marine Veteran uses Brazilian jiu-jitsu and VA for recovery. VA News. https://news.va.gov/27889/marine-consulmagno-jiu-jitsu-recovery/