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Cpl. Willie Holden, an armorer with 5th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, has Petty Officer Orestes Martinez, a corpsman with Regimental Combat Team 5, in a back mount during jiu-jitsu class Nov. 17 at the Camp Ripper, Iraq, martial arts training tent. In a class taught by instructors with more than 35 years of combined martial arts experience, Martinez and Holden are but two of the students who are getting a well-rounded experience in grappling techniques beyond what's taught in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.

Photo by Sgt. M. Trent Lowry

Marines grapple with jiu-jitsu in deployed dojo

21 Nov 2008 | Sgt. M. Trent Lowry

When Sgt. Brian Mendez asks for a banana split, he’s not looking to go out for dessert.  Instead, someone could be in pain real soon.

Mendez, 25, sergeant-of-the-guard with Regimental Combat Team 5, is also a Marine Corps Martial Arts Program instructor from Torrance, Calif.  He has been practicing jiu-jitsu since he was 14 and started an extracurricular jiu-jitsu training course here, where the “banana split” he asks his students to show him is a grappling submission technique used in mixed martial arts competitions.

“I tell people to leave their ego at the door and be ready to learn,” said Mendez.

For Marines, or any service member serving on Al Asad Air Base in western al-Anbar province, the martial arts dojo is a welcome opportunity to get some physical and mental exercise.

“They come here wanting to learn and get a good workout,” Mendez said, who trained at the renowned Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Torrance and has taught martial arts for nine years. 

Mendez started his jiu-jitsu training for other Marines in March after RCT-5 had been deployed for a few months. He said the regiment was gracious enough to offer a tent to use as a permanent training site.

With an established location for the martial arts classes, Mendez’ jiu-jitsu training has garnered a devoted following from Marines who travel by bike or bus from across Al Asad.

“I love what it does for the Marines,” said Capt. Jerry Roeder, 35, with Combat Logistics Battalion 2, from Jacksonville, N.C., who has assumed duties as co-instructor with the Camp Ripper dojo upon arriving in Iraq this summer. “It gives (service members) a positive outlet for their energy.”

Even with the cooler temperatures in late November in the desert, the martial arts tent heats up on jiu-jitsu nights Monday, Wednesday and Saturdays from 8 to 10 p.m. The students work up a good sweat learning new techniques, then applying them in controlled grappling matches monitored by Mendez and Roeder, who watch for technical proficiency and student safety.

“This has really motivated me to get back into it,” said Master Sgt. Travis Edwards, 38, with Battery S, 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment from Santa Clarita, Calif., who use to wrestle.  “It has reminded me how much I love grappling.”

From Marines experienced in “rolling” – a slang term for a grappler – to those with less time on the mat, there is a place for anyone in the jiu-jitsu class.

“We focus on a few different levels of techniques,” said Roeder, who has wrestled since age 10 and is also adept at Brazilian jiu-jitsu and pancrase, which is a hybrid wrestling fighting form. “When we do a more basic technique, it’s a good review for those with more experience, but it helps the students with less experience stay focused and interested.”

“We make them work for it,” Mendez added. “We go at just below their level and just above their level, so they can see that they’re making progress, but when we turn it up, they have a challenge too.”

Perhaps it takes a bit of bravery to step onto the mat for the first time, but new students are always showing up for the classes, from Marines just visiting from other combat outposts to people curious about martial arts beyond what’s taught in MCMAP.

“I’ve thought about it a few times, and it was just something I finally decided to do,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Orestes Martinez, 23, a corpsman with RCT-5 from Miami, who was participating in his first class. “This is a very good way to exercise.”

Mendez appreciates the fact that while on this deployment, his fourth since enlisting in the Marine Corps in 2003, there is actually time within the operational tempo for this training.

“We didn’t have this luxury before,” Mendez said, who, as a scout sniper in Fallujah and Ramadi in 2004 and 2005, didn’t have time for jiu-jitsu training.

However, one of the attractive factors about joining the Marines for Mendez was the martial arts program.

“It motivated me that I could be a Marine and still do mixed martial arts at the same time,” Mendez said, referring to teaching MCMAP, which counts jiu-jitsu as one of its sub-disciplines. “So it’s very nice to be able to bring this to the Marines while we’re out here in Iraq.”

It’s a fun pastime for Lance Cpl. Dana Hineline, who provides convoy security with CLB-2, but she also sees immediate application of jiu-jitsu to her Marine duties.

“If I ever have to stop someone and doesn’t have a weapon, I’ll be able to take them down,” said Hineline, 20, a native of Kennesaw, Ga. “I have to search females, and sometimes males, and if they get violent I can protect myself and control the situation.”

While the fighting styles are helpful for close-quarters combat, the Marines get other benefits out of the jiu-jitsu discipline.

“I like to focus on the moral and spiritual aspects, as well,” Roeder said. “They really get to know who they are out here and they learn sportsmanship.”

“The more you teach, the more you learn yourself,” said Mendez, who is happy Roeder, someone with similar skill levels, is around to practice with. “We keep each other on our toes.”

And they keep the students on their toes, too, ready to learn and eager to come back for more.

“They look forward to the training because it’s motivation and it helps the time go by faster while deployed out here,” Mendez said. “Anybody’s welcome as long as they are ready to train hard, but have fun and relax.

“And,” Mendez repeats, “Leave your ego at the door.”
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