FORT HOOD, Texas-There will be blood.
There will also be dislocated shoulders, eyes swollen shut and the occasional lights-out, smelling-salts-required knockout.
Soldiers aren’t just fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sometimes they fight each other.
“Most of us like to fight,” Spc. Zach Nichols, a medic in the 1st Cavalry Division, said before the semifinal of the Fort Hood Combatives Tournament last week. “It felt good.”
The tournament, held in a gym full of hollering soldiers who planted unit flags in support of their brothers, featured 252 men and six women in four days of double-elimination hand-to-hand combat in an octagonal cage.
Closely resembling mixed-martial-arts fights in which punches, kicks, takedowns and chokes are allowed, Army combatives is a relatively new initiative to instruct every single soldier, infantrymen, cooks and mechanics alike, how to survive, even dominate, a street fight.
Like a shark to blood, soldiers were instantly drawn to it.
Generals and colonels mix it up. The Army started a school to teach advanced-level fighting skills. Tournaments sprang up to compete in the all-Army championship, the winners gaining nothing more than a trophy and the glory that comes with being known in the mess hall as a “BA.”
“It has blown up in the last couple of years,” said Sgt. Michael Chappelle, a professional mixed-martial-arts fighter who teaches at the combatives school at Fort Benning, Ga. “We’ve gotten a lot of exposure, and there is a lot of demand from units for more and more training.”
Chappelle, an intimidating figure even in shorts and flip-flops, considers the tournament part training, part entertainment and part motivation for the crowds who turn out to watch. This year’s tournament drew 100 more soldiers than last year’s.
“Our mission isn’t always to shoot everybody,” Chappelle said of the Army. “It’s a basic skill every soldier should have, just like marksmanship.”
Maj. Adam Boyd is 38, one of the oldest who competed in the tournament and the highest-ranking as well. Not that anyone else knew that. Ranks do not appear on the brackets, for very obvious reasons. Competitors are matched only by weight: fly, welter, middle, cruiser, light heavy and heavy.
After three days of fights, all he had was a small scratch on his nose. He managed to dispatch most of his opponents quickly, one in only 90 seconds.
“I threw him to the ground and choked him,” Boyd said. “He didn’t like that much, so he submitted.”
Submitted is the term when an opponent knows he’s beaten and concedes the fight on his own. The referee can stop the fight as well when it becomes clear who is the victor. A relative few are decided by points.
Boyd, an intelligence officer in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, had done judo and boxing for years and picked up Brazilian jujitsu when he moved to Killeen, Texas. He ended up finishing second in the tournament, a soldier 14 years his junior taking him out in the first round of the finals.
Like most soldiers, Boyd is frank about the relationship between combatives and soldiering.
“We are a combat arms organization,” he said. “We are fighters. And every trooper needs to know how to fight hand to hand. You don’t always have the luxury of having your weapon available.”
The Marine Corps has taught martial arts to all its men and women for years. But the Army, for whatever reason, had let its expertise lapse, particularly in the support ranks.
In the mid-1990s, then-Lt. Col. Stanley McChrystal _ now a four-star general in charge of the Afghanistan operation, reinstituted martial-arts training in his Rangers battalion. A program was developed by a young sergeant named Matt Larsen, who is credited as the architect of modern Army combatives.
From there, it spread informally to other infantry-intensive units.
In 2002, the Army made combatives part of its official doctrine, which signals that the four-star generals think it’s important.
Brig. Gen. William Grimsley, deputy commanding general of III Corps at Fort Hood, is a big believer in the usefulness of combatives and a frequent fan at the tournaments. He calls combatives a “go-to-war skill.”
“Watching these soldiers compete is exciting,” Grimsley said. “They’re fit. They’re motivated. They’re energized. They’re doing what they came into the Army to do. Army combatives will reassure soldiers about their ability to serve in combat.”
The first level of combatives is taught at basic training, officer candidate school and virtually every other career course soldiers take. From there, it is often up to them to continue to ask for additional training, and it can be used as part of their promotion system, just like taking college classes.
Granted, if a soldier ends up in hand-to-hand combat without a weapon, things have probably gone very wrong. Indeed, the first lesson of Army combatives goes like this: The winner of the hand-to-hand fight in combat is the one whose buddy shows up first with a gun.
Still, proponents say soldiers need to learn enough skills so they don’t wonder what to do if they end up in that situation.
“Punching and getting punched desensitizes soldiers so that they don’t get into a fight for the first time in combat,” Chappelle said.
Donald Thatcher, a 26-year-old specialist, had never been in a fight before joining the Army.
Not even a schoolyard scrap.
But he has taken to the violence well. He won his weight class at last year’s Fort Hood tournament and finished fourth this year.
“I just had the ability to absorb what they’re teaching,” he said. “And I’m very competitive. Whatever I’m going to do, I’m going to aggressively try to achieve the goal.”
Getting in the tournament is not for the weak of heart.
“One guy broke his hand pretty bad,” said Capt. Jon Norquist, an officer in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment who ran the tournament. “We evac’ed one guy because he might have broken a rib. We’ve had a few dislocated arms and shoulders.”
Certainly no one questioned the heart of Sheritan Burns, a 23-year-old who became a crowd favorite as she made it all the way to the semifinals.
Mind you, there is no women’s bracket.
All of 5 feet and maybe 100 pounds, she defeated three women and one man to reach the semifinals.
“She destroyed him,” Norquist said. “People are into the women fighting. Everybody was screaming for her.”
A former high school wrestler, Burns always tried to get her opponents on the mat early. But in the semis, facing a taller man, she got pounded early and often in the face and never recovered.
Burns submitted before the first round was over.
“That was the first time I’ve ever been punched in the face like that,” she said, her left eye all but completely closed. “You know how they say you see stars? I saw stars. It hurt.”
Some of the competitors, though, seemed to enjoy the pain, both giving and receiving it.
Nichols, only a few weeks back from 12 months in Iraq, considered the fights a great dose of stress relief.
“It’s a pretty controlled environment,” he said, “and nobody is here to hurt each other. I’m glad the Army is doing this. We need some more stress relievers.”
At that, he went out and beat his opponent in one of the best fights of the day, forcing the referee to step in and shield his opponent from any more blows.
Nichols pounded his chest and spit out his mouthpiece.
Then, like any good medic, he leaned down on one knee to help the other soldier up.