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More than hand-to-hand combat

By Chad L. Simon | 1ST INF. DIV. PUBLIC AFFAIRS | January 12, 2018

     Each year during the 1st Infantry Division’s Victory Week, Soldiers compete in a number of athletic competitions, such as basketball, water polo and combatives, where Soldiers face one another in a series of hand-to-hand bouts designed to test their individual, unarmed combat abilities. While this might remind onlookers of a mixed martial arts competition, the Modern Army Combatives program available to “Big Red One” Soldiers focuses more on personal readiness, ensuring service members can win in a close-quarters encounter with the enemy.

     “Because of the name ‘combatives,’ Soldiers are unsure of what to expect,” said Staff Sgt. Amanda Larson, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, combatives noncommissioned officer in charge. “... They think we are here to create fighters and that is not what we are doing. That is not the goal of the program.”

     When the program first started in the late 1990s, its purpose was to produce fighters like the ones spectators see when viewing mixed martial arts fights, said Frank Portillo, 1st Inf. Div. master trainer instructor.

     “In the beginning, it was about how tough you were to get through it,” Portillo said. “It was making a lot of good fighters in the Army, but not a lot of good, competent combat Soldiers. There were no tactical skills taught — it was all ground work. That is fine because you need to have basics, but you never want to take a hand-to-hand fight to the ground. You don’t want that in full kit.”

     Portillo said the first iteration of combatives was brutal and caused many injuries to Soldiers some did not see necessary. Though the program has changed, he said that reputation still lingers throughout the Army.

     “The course had to change,” Portillo said. “Everything has to evolve through time. Either you loved it or you hated it. A lot of Soldiers didn’t (like it and asked), ‘Why do I need to get punched in the face for 15 minutes to try to get a clinch?’ Engagements don’t last that long. That is why the program had to change.

     “Once they started putting more tactical techniques into the program, then commanders were more willing to involve their Soldiers. Prior to the changes in 2010 it was like, ‘I don’t want to send my Soldiers and have them coming back with a broken nose or black eyes’.”

     Soldiers now get trained in hand-to-hand combat and techniques so they can survive close-quarters combat against an enemy. While Soldiers get an introduction to the program in basic training, their training is not validated until they go through a course taught by a master trainer, Larson said.

      Soldiers learn intangible skills as they complete the 40-hour basic course.

     “We see Soldiers that are timid or unsure of their leadership skills or they don’t have the confidence,” Larson said. “By end of a course, you see the difference in a Soldier that was timid and not aggressive and unsure, (to) being a leader to taking charge. They have more confidence because they were able to successfully achieve something that intimidated them to begin with.”

      Soldiers not only become more confident in their abilities, she said — they also become more resilient.

     “You are learning to be resilient in this course because you do get slapped in the face,” said 1st Lt. Erin Schneider, Special Troops Battalion, 1st Inf. Div. Sustainment Brigade, assistant operations officer. “Soldiers need to realize that no matter what your primary job is, you are a Soldier at the end of the day. I think this course does a very good job of enforcing that.”

      As roles shift in the Army and across the U.S. military, training based on weight instead of rank or gender can be unique.

      “As I like to say, ‘Bullets don’t know gender;’ that person across the ocean doesn’t care if you are a man or a woman,” Portillo said. “His goal is to take as many with him as possible.

      “There is plenty of negativity about women doing this, but it is about trust. If men can’t trust women to do the job, then they won’t have faith. If women can’t trust men to do the right, then they are not going to have faith. This is a two-way range for non-gendered training.”

      As the program has changed and survived nearly being choked out of the Army training regimen, Larson feels the program still aligns with preparing Soldiers for combat.

      “Combatives has a total different spin on building readiness because it builds readiness for a Soldier from the inside to out,” Larson said. “It really pulls from the inside to out. It isn’t a PowerPoint slide or a little roleplay scenario … it is physically exhausting for the Soldiers, but it gives them a sense that no matter what it shows them how much more than be.”