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Soldiers go to the mat to show their fighting skills

By Martha Quillin
mquillin@newsobserver.com

FORT BRAGG The next generation of soldiers may be able to take out a target with a drone from miles away, but Sgt. Jeff Yurk wants to make sure they also can defeat an opponent at arm’s length when necessary.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Yurk, who teaches hand-to-hand combat techniques at the 82nd Airborne Combatives School on Fort Bragg. He uses a fellow soldier to demonstrate.

Maybe they’re in a village in Afghanistan, and Yurk is having what seems to be a routine conversation with a local resident, until the man suddenly takes a swing or reaches for a weapon.

Before the guy knows what’s happening, Yurk can get behind him and put him in a choke hold that, if needed, can render the subject unconscious.

“You want to be ready no matter what,” Yurk said, releasing his arm from around his friend’s neck.

Several hundred soldiers have come to Fort Bragg this week to try to prove their readiness at the Army Combatives Championship Invitational, a bracketed competition where potentially deadly force is showcased in a collegiate sports atmosphere. The finals will be fought Saturday night in a cage on a platform 3 feet off the ground with up to 1,000 cheering spectators.

Basic combatives training is a required weeklong course for all soldiers in the 82nd and for many others throughout the Army. Many soldiers choose to get up to three additional levels of training.

The military has taught its warriors how to fight for as long as it has sent them into battle, but American forces have not always had consistent and effective training in hand-to-hand, according to Army history. One problem, Yurk said, was that soldiers were shown a manual, or at most were told to act out the movements that could be used to take an opponent to the ground and disable or kill him in a fight.

But because they had to pull their punches, “You wouldn’t even know how hard you would have to hit somebody like that to kill them,” Yurk said.

Revamping the training

In the mid-1990s, the Army began to revamp the training, and after some experimentation, settled on a form of fighting that combines elements of martial arts, boxing and wrestling and gives soldiers the ability to use just the amount of force needed to control a dangerous situation. To give them incentive to practice and develop their skills, the Army built in regular competition; Fort Bragg has four a year.

For several years, the Army has held annual championship matches but canceled this year’s event because of budget cuts.

Yurk and others at Fort Bragg decided to pick it up and hold it here.

In the first round – held at Ritz-Epps Gym on post Friday – soldiers in each of seven weight classes fought in single-elimination, six-minute matches, often with three matches going on at the same time. Competitors, in combat dress and bare feet, met at the center of a yellow circle on the mat. In each match, one fighter wore a red belt and one wore blue so the referee could attribute points to one or the other.

In each match and at each level of competition, the goals are the same: Close the gap; gain the dominant position; finish the fight. To win, one opponent has to take the other down or, if neither does so successfully, the winner is decided on points.

The first round was governed by combatives “standard rules,” in which opponents are not allowed to strike each other. In the second, semifinal round, governed by “intermediate rules,” opponents can strike with an open palm to the face and fists and kicks to the body. In the third round, kicks and fists to the head, and knees to the body are also legal.

Males and females

It’s a punishing sport. Trainers and regular competitors have so many injuries they lump them together by body part.

“I’ve broken my nose, torn the … joint in my shoulder, sprained both knees and ankles, jammed all my digits, and I’m starting to get cauliflower ear,” said Spec. Tania Calderon-Griek, the rare female combatives trainer and contender at Fort Bragg. In combatives, women fight men in their own weight class, or they would often have no one to fight.

A medic by training and a lifelong athlete, Calderon-Griek got interested in combatives a couple of years ago. She especially likes the fluidity of the martial-arts movements, and she is competitive by nature.

At this year’s post championship, Calderon-Griek made it to the finals before her opponent punched her in the jaw and knocked her unconscious.

For a while after that, she said, it affected her training and her fighter’s mindset, until she determined not to let it. That’s part of the benefit of the exercise, she said. Confidence building.

“It’s about not letting your fear take control. You take control of the fear and you go in anyway,” she said. “You take the hits and keep going. It just instills that warrior mentality.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989
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