When I first met Josh, I expected someone older based on the phone conversations we had before he came to train at the academy where I teach. He had served in the military, very recently back in the states, and was going to be the first student we ever had that the government allocated money for him to pursue training to become a martial arts instructor. He was too young to have seen and done the things overseas that he had, but he had an affable personality when you spoke to him.
He loves martial arts. He had armor around him, and by this I mean he equated martial arts with warfare to a great extent, and I estimated that my personal approach to jiu-jitsu may be at odds with the violence he had come to assume was an essential ingredient of most disciplines. He trained in various martial arts over the years, finding a particular resonance with Krav Maga, known for its brutal and ferocious approach to conflict resolution. Needless to say, the gentle art was something that he was going to have to endure as part of our instructor training program, rather than enjoy immediately.
Training commenced and I enjoyed having him in class, because he laughed at my jokes and appreciated my teaching style. He, like every individual I ever have the privilege to teach, represented a marvelous opportunity to me. I worked with him in group classes and in private lessons, showing him the self-defense of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and some of the sporty stuff for fun. When it came time to roll, I did notice a frustrated affect about him sometimes. Some of the subtleties of jiu-jitsu eluded him and other aspects downright irritated him. But he kept with it.
Much of our initial lessons were discussion. I expressed to him that among the many things I love about jiu-jitsu, the ability to subdue and restrain someone is of paramount importance. Something that, whether he had ever considered this or not, he had never had a need to do this. He was a soldier, a warrior, and unfortunate but necessary as it was for him, a killer. Josh had been forced as part of his duty to turn off parts of himself that many of us take for granted in order to perform his job in the military. I cannot personally truly imagine what this would take, but I am thankful that there are men and women capable of rising to this ability in order to protect our freedoms.
Josh had at times shared with me the detrimental effects his time in the military had on his psyche, his emotions, and his soul. He experienced night terrors, panic attacks, and other ailments associated with Post Traumatic Stress. To him, fighting meant surviving and if the other person was severely injured or killed, it was in the name of self-preservation. But still, his jiu-jitsu training continued.
Flash forward. I rolled with Josh a week ago and he was flowing. His movement was continuous and he was going from position to position, defending and attacking appropriately, and letting things happen without unnecessary struggle or stress. He began to ask questions about positions, which by their very nature indicated to me that he was enjoying the training. And then today, we began our lesson, with talk about a guard pass that lands you in knee on belly position, when he stops me and shares a story that, in my near 20 years of martial arts experience, I have perhaps never heard a better testament to the transformative power of proper training.
Josh told me of a troubled friend. After a series of events lead him to become suspicious that his friend may be using drugs again, Josh drove to the house his friend had been frequenting in a less than desirable neighborhood. Upon entering, it was apparent what had been going on: the coffee table in the empty living room contained aluminum foil, emptied out ballpoint pen shafts, lighters and residue from the previously and soon-to-be-used meth. Perfunctorily, Josh carried these items into the bathroom and flushed what would down the toilet. The flush alerted the friend, who had been in another room that someone was there and he cornered Josh in the bathroom doorway, snatching his shirt in two hands and pressing him into the wall, screaming at him for an explanation.
Josh reluctantly told me of his excitement at the opportunity this presented, having trained this exact scenario repeatedly in lessons. He wrapped his friend’s head and arm and threw him to the floor, pinning him heavily while the man struggled to fight and squirm out. Finally, after expending all the energy he cared to, he complied and got into the car with Josh to head back to Josh’s house.
Josh and I had spoken about how there is no superior martial art necessarily all of the time, but there is at a given time, paraphrasing Bruce Lee. And I had expressed to him how beautiful I thought it was that if strikes are all you have in your arsenal in a fight then you have to subdue a would-be attacker in a dark alley the same way you would a friend who has lost his way. This was not a moment to break a collar bone or gouge out eyes. This was a time for restraint and compliance, for compassionate negotiation. And Josh was as amazed with himself as I was with him that he responded perfectly to this moment.
The car ride back? How did that go? Josh’s friend asked him how he did what he did.
“Jiu-Jitsu” was Josh’s reply. “And how about instead of doing that shit you have been doing you come by and I can show you some techniques and we can train together?”
I considered this nothing short of a golden lining testament to the alchemical effect of jiu-jitsu. But Josh went on after this story to tell me what he had been noticing from jiu-jitsu training beyond just this dramatic incedent: How he can be out in a crowd now and not be jumpy or on edge, wondering if someone is going to attack at any second; how he and his fiancé can eat in a restaurant and he is ok with his back to a window now; how he has grown comfortable with things that you and I who have never been in military combat take for granted each day. Jiu-Jitsu helped Josh in a way that doctors with pills and therapy sessions couldn’t.
We trained a bit longer. We talked about some of this for the last few minutes too. I had to shake his hand and head to my next lesson when he told me of a conversation he had with his friend, also a combat vet, also suffering from PTSD. He told his friend of the accounts of these events, of the experiences he had been having of late and the adjustments jiu-jitsu has given him the ability to make. His friend simply said, “Welcome back. You finally came home.”
Welcome home, Josh.