Striking Back at PTSD

by Kelly Crigger

Soldiers are warriors who don’t always need to be coddled, yet many Post Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment facilities only offer a soft approach to rehabilitation based on group therapy and talking about their experiences. What many of them need is the complete opposite – a tough physical challenge that demands they rekindle their warrior spirit and rise up to meet a challenge.

Sergeant Todd Vance after a Muay Thai workout. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Crigger)

Sergeant Todd Vance has been there. A former Stryker Infantryman, Vance returned from Iraq and had a hard time forgetting about the distasteful moments of his more than 200 combat missions. After rehabilitating himself, he took up the burden of helping others and started a program for veterans based on something he knew a lot about – kickboxing. In particular, Vance is experienced in Muay Thai kickboxing, a physically exhaustive form of fighting that requires mental acuity to remember the combinations and wears the participants out through a grueling training regimen.

“I started the program for a few different reasons,” Vance says. I work at the Veterans Administration, but love to teach martial arts so I wanted to combine the two. I thought to myself, ‘no one has done this yet and martial arts is precisely what saved me, so why couldn’t it help all the other guys getting back?’”

Vance first needed a facility to hold his weekly classes and approached the owners of the Undisputed Boxing Gym in San Diego where he trains, who were more than happy to help. “The class is at an off peak hour so we have the full facilities to ourselves,” Vance says. “The veterans in my class don’t have to pay any fees for my class and get an extreme discount if they want to become full members.”

Vance then got the word out around town by making flyers that he distributed on local college campuses and convinced the Veterans Administration of San Diego to send it out to their email lists. Instantly he had five students and tangible results.

“It gives the guys a reason to get in shape, an education in physical fitness and martial arts, and gives them a safe place to go to blow off steam with people like them,” Vance says. “Too many vets turn to alcohol to cope with the things they did and saw, so this gives them something else.”

Vance’s program, called POW (Pugilistic Offensive Warrior), is similar to the multi-faceted approach of Andrea Lucie’s Marine Corps program at Camp Lejeune. Lucie combines yoga, fitness, and Mixed Martial Arts to help Marines cope with PTSD and has been a leading advocate for taking a harder approach to PTSD.

“Marines don’t want to sit around talking about their feelings,” says Captain Lee Stuckey, one of Lucie’s former students. “They joined to be warriors, so they need something to hit and someone to treat them like men. Also MMA workouts are really tough, so they help us sleep. Without the workouts I have to take medication, which I hate.”

Back in San Diego, Vance’s group is small, but that just affords them focused attention with the same benefits as Lucie’s group on the east coast. It’s Vance’s way of giving back to the troops and helping them find a way through their problems using the same solutions that worked on him.

“One of the students came up to me and thanked me for putting all the effort into the program and doing this,” Vance says. “He said it’s what gets him through the week and he looks forward to it every time. That was very rewarding and inspired me to keep pushing forward.”

Kelly Crigger is a Lieutenant Colonel stationed in Washington, D.C., the author of Title Shot: Into the Shark Tank of Mixed Martial Arts, and a contributor to The Rhino Den. The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Kelly Crigger and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.