FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE, Iraq – Spc. Patrick Bowman leaned against a rolled-up wrestling mat, gasped for air and tasted the blood trickling from the cut on his bottom lip.
And yet, the Fort Lewis soldier insisted, taking blows to the face and returning the favor is the ideal way to spend an afternoon.
“There’s no feeling like punching and kicking someone – and getting kicked and punched,” said Bowman, a human intelligence collector with 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. “It gets that blood pumping. It gets that adrenaline flowing.”
Soldiers across Iraq are increasingly turning to mixed-martial-arts brawling to blow off steam and stay in shape, a phenomenon that undoubtedly is growing because of the rise in popularity of Ultimate Fighting Championship and similar ventures.
The Army teaches hand-to-hand combat training in a program known as combatives. It launched a formal combatives program in 1995 and founded a combatives school at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2000. A Fort Lewis soldier, Sgt. Joe Clark of 17th Fires Brigade, won the 125-pound division in September.
Fort Lewis started a Modern Army Combatives Academy on post in April 2008, graduating hundreds of soldiers through a one-week entry-level and a two-week intermediate course. Soldiers who have done tours in Iraq speak of the importance of hand-to-hand skills in subduing out-of-control detainees.
In Iraq’s Diyala province, troops from 3rd Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment transformed a tent near the unit’s headquarters into a fighting arena at this base outside Baqouba. They sparred in a conference room when they arrived in Iraq in September. But by the next month, the popularity of combatives forced them to move to the tent, which they filled with free weights, heavy bags, speed bags and mats.
About 60 soldiers use the gym each week, and much of the activity styles itself after mixed martial arts. It combines several fighting techniques such as tae kwon do, jujitsu, judo and boxing.
“We want to tell the joes that they can be comfortable fighting on their feet,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Greer, who works in 1-37 Field Artillery’s intelligence section. “You shouldn’t be scared of the punch. You can still win a fight even when you’re getting hit.”
Greer teaches combatives at the gym-tent, officially called the Red Lion Training Center. It’s also known by nicknames such as “Fist to Face Combat House” or “the Punishment House.”
Soldiers are required to wear headgear and a mouthpiece when they fight. Moves considered dirty (such as gouging or hitting below the belt) or likely to cause a cut (such as striking with the elbow or knee) are banned.
And if it’s obvious a participant is getting overmatched, the fight must end.
“We’re not looking to knock people out,” Greer said.
The soldiers fight for myriad reasons. Bowman, a 21-year-old Florida native, initially tried it as a new way to have fun. Many fight because it’s a good way to stay in shape. For others, it’s a way to burn off energy that builds up during this mostly quiet deployment.
And for some, conflicts at work spill over into the gym.
“Some people get tired of arguing and talking,” Greer said, “and they settle their problems on the mat.”