Brazilian Jiu Jitsu For Veterans

Veterans have trouble figuring out where they fit in once military life is over.  The culture shock of moving from a military to civilian lifestyle can feel impossible. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a tool that eases this adjustment.  The most common thing I hear from my veteran friends is “Training Jiu Jitsu saved my life!”

Veterans using Jiu Jitsu to transition to civilian life
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One of my friends and training partner, Richard Aviles, a veteran, has used Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to help transition to daily life.  He told me about some of the difficulties he has noticed.

“The problem is that when we leave the military a little piece of us stays with it.  It’s a piece you never truly get back because there are some great years (accompanied  by some pain and annoyances).  

You go from having your day planned out from 5 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, to waking up and having to make decisions with no guidance.  

You may stop working out and begin to binge.  This stage goes on for a while.  You realize that you no longer find that sense of family and camaraderie.  

Finding a place where you feel like part of something great again is essential after so many years of service. “

What Is A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Training Session Like?

We Defy Fundraiser Open MatBrazilian Jiu Jitsu classes are broken into two major components.
  • Technique Portion.  The instructor helps the students get warmed up and then teaches one technique at a time.  He monitors the students drilling the technique making adjustments as needed.
  • Live Rolling Portion.  Students spar with their teammates putting all their knowledge to a practical application.  The grappling ruleset does not include punches, kicks, knees, elbows, etc.  This keeps it relatively safe to train at a high intensity.  When caught in a chokehold or joint lock, the student “taps out,” admitting temporary defeat.  The teammate lets go of the submission preventing any actual danger.  These rounds are typically 5 – 6 minute rounds, changing partners between rounds.  Rolling potentially continues until you are too exhausted to continue.

How Does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Help Veterans Adjust?


Problem: In the military everything has a process and an order.  After exiting the military, the freedom can feel overwhelming and there can be a lack of direction.

Solution: Make Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes a regular part of your schedule.  The weekly Women Bow In - Technique conquers Allconsistency will provide a framework of structure.  Attending classes regularly is self reinforcing in order to get better.  The belt ranks give a natural hierarchy based on experience.  Even moves are taught in a structured manner that will seem familiar to veterans.

BJJ is part of a structured life.  Decisions about what to eat, drinking water, and getting enough sleep are informed by the structure of “what will I feel like in Jiu Jitsu class…”


Problem: White in the military, many veterans are in some of the best shape of their life.  Part of the daily structure includes workouts.  Food is largely pre-planned.  Returning to civilian life can result in a halt to exercise.

Solution:  Walking on a treadmill or lifting weights becomes boring.  Finding the motivation to slog through a workout is a severe effort of will. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu you learn new techniques daily.  Every session on the mats is interesting. There is always room for incremental improvement and honing. Having a buddy system on the mat adds accountability to training as well.

Camaraderie And Shared Mission

Problem: A veteran bonds with those around them in a way that civilians can’t understand.  The dependence on each other to achieve shared missions builds trust and purpose.  When returning to every day life, co-workers and friends may be more self serving, leaving the veteran feeling confused and isolated.  A lack of purpose can lead to a downward spiral of negative thoughts.

Camaraderie With Other Veterans At Jiu Jitsu

Solution:  Every time you step on the mats you have a mission and sense of purpose.  You want to be harder to choke than yesterday, and improve your ability to submit your opponent.

Your training partners have the same goals.  They are your training equipment.  The more you can upgrade your training equipment, the better of a workout you can get.

BJJ is an “individual team sport.”  During live rolling, success rests only on the individual’s shoulders and is the culmination of their training.  The preparation however requires a team of other individuals pushing you in every day. Without your contributions in training, your teammates won’t be prepared to win.  They rely on you as much as you rely on them

Adrenaline Rush

Problem: During active duty, the body is taught to be aware at all times.  Survival depends on being alert to every danger.  Civilian life rarely presents real dangers and can seem boring in contrast.  Sometimes the military member stays hyper-vigilant, never getting the release of adrenaline.

Solution: Once you step on the mat, and another trusted human being is trying to choke you unconscious, the present moment comes into clear focus.  Instead of preparing for potential threats that never materialize, you gets to deal with a real “threat.”

Richard Choking Sammi BJJBrazilian Jiu Jitsu is essentially simulated deaths.  If training partners didn’t have your best interest in mind, once you were choked unconscious, killing you wouldn’t be hard.  Your subconscious mind knows this and reacts accordingly.  Distractedly thinking about the stresses of life in these situations is counterproductive.  Being fully present in the moment is rewarded.

Our training partners care about our wellbeing.  If defenses are insufficient, we just “tap out” and try all over again.  Failure isn’t fun, but has limited consequences in the Jiu Jitsu world.

What About Jiu Jitsu As A PTSD Treatment?

Yesterday was Memorial Day, a day to honor those who gave their lives for this country.  People typically think of casualties in a combat zone.  Unfortunately there is also an ongoing epidemic of suicide amongst veterans.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a major contributor in these suicides.

Science is just starting to back up the experiences of individual grapplers who have had success treating their PTSD by training Jiu Jitsu.  Alison Willing, Ph.D, a professor at the University of South Florida’s Center of Aging and Brain Repair in Tampa, Florida. is doing a formal study on Jiu Jitsu as PTSD treatment,

“The effects of this first study were so dramatic. The PTSD scores on all of the valid scales were getting so much better to the point where you don’t usually see with traditional PTSD therapies.”

Before we talk too much about how Jiu Jitsu can help with PTSD it is important to know how the VA typically treats PTSD.

Note: I am not a health professional.  Please seek out qualified help!  If you are a veteran in a suicidal crisis seek help immediately: (The 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) provides immediate access to mental health crisis intervention and support. Veterans call the national suicide prevention hotline number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and then “Press 1” to reach highly skilled responders trained in suicide prevention and crisis intervention.)

The VA’s Steps In PTSD Treatment For VeteransVA Jiu Jitsu For PTSD - US Department of Veterans Affairs

  1. Make contact with a professional counselor as soon as possible.
    1. Talking to a qualified therapist can help keep the issues from piling up and leading to a catastrophe.  They will help you create a plan of action to begin coping.  The US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) says that there are two core types of therapy they help provide.
      1. Cognitive Therapy – This is talking through everything with a qualified professional who can help you come to terms with your trauma and its aftermath.  You will be given tools to deal with your emotions and feelings in an ongoing basis.
      2. Exposure Therapy – Sometimes, the events that lead to PTSD can feel overwhelming.  One way counselors help some people is to have them repeat stories or situations that bring up those traumatic feelings to help desensitize the subject to the effects.  You will be given tools to remain calmer and maintain your breathing under stressful emotional scenarios.
      3. Medication – You and your counselor may decide that medications can help alleviate the symptoms of your PTSD as you are processing the treatments.

How Does Jiu Jitsu Fit In With Treatment?

In my experience with veterans, they typically say that they waited a long time to begin the cognitive therapy aspect of recovery.  They thought that they would be able to overcome their issue on their own. When they finally sought out help, they wish they had done it long before.  Talking to a trained counselor started their forward progress.  Therapists typically are unaware of the benefits of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on their patients until they have one that pursues it on their own with good results.

Exposure Therapy

Jiu Jitsu fits in with the concepts of exposure therapy.  We are introducing a stressful situation in a controlled safe environment.  In this scenario, remaining composed is rewarded.

Since Jiu JMilitary Grappling trainingitsu matches can be physically exhausting, conserving energy and remaining calm under pressure are necessities.  Staying in an amped up mode will lead to using too much energy and eventually helplessness.


“The central teachings of the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) are based on relaxing and settling down when confronted with the most uncomfortable situations. Also, the martial art provides and efficient form of exercise with an extraordinarily friendly and relaxed social atmosphere that incorporate people from different diversities. By so doing, the martial art does not only provide the much-needed depression outlet for the PTSD sufferers but also eases anger and frustration thus eliciting rehabilitation and recovery images”

(From “Military-and sports-related mild traumatic brain injury: clinical presentation, management, and long-term consequences.” from The Journal of clinical psychiatry.)

Each time a veteran suffering from PTSD is able to recover their composure in the face of a stress inducing event, they empower themselves for more future success.  Jiu Jitsu offers a unique opportunity to deal with stressors.  Grapplers get in a large number of repetitions in “staying grounded.”  Veterans feel more in control of their lives.

Sustainable Treatment

To alleviate the symptoms and stabilize mood medication is needed for many PTSD patients.  I personally know numerous veterans have found the benefits of BJJ so powerful that they have been able to drastically reduce or sometimes completely halt their medications!

Medicine is very beneficial to helping a subject cope with symptoms.  However, the side effects can introduce a whole new host of problems.  Some veterans don’t feel like themselves when they are taking their meds.  Finding a substitute that attains the same results could be life changing.  ALWAYS visit with your therapist before making any changes to medical dosages.We Defy Veterans Using BJJ

Jiu Jitsu relies on technique and leverage, and isn’t just a game for the young bucks.  Middle aged and older veterans can train Jiu Jitsu and get just as much benefit.  Most gyms you walk in to you probably won’t even be their oldest student!

There is continued evidence of high burden of suicide among middle-aged and older adult Veterans. In 2014, approximately 65% of all Veterans who died from suicide were aged 50 years or older. (Suicide Prevention Fact Sheet).

You could easily continue training well into your later life.  BJJ isn’t a quickly closing window, where you will age out of it being an activity you can participate in.

Some Case Studies

Richard Aviles

I personally turned to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu November 7, 2013.  After being out for almost a year I found myself lost, unable to adapt to civilian life and jumping from job to job.  I felt that I had a lot of frustration built up and needed another avenue to release it.  Jiu-jitsu offered me that along with so much more.

BJJ offers a therapy that you cannot find anywhere else in the world especially for combat veterans.  Our kind is a very unique line of people that have seen the worst of the world and constantly crave being in the front lines again.  We feel that our lives are not whole after being in whatever situation we had been and always want that rush, that high that will make us feel like our lives are worth so much more.

From day one in BJJ there is structure, rank, goals, and resources similar to the military.  There is a uniform code and rules that govern our sport in order to understand where you stand in the gigantic sea of BJJ. “

Jason King
We Defy

We Defy Foundation BJJ For VeteransThe We Defy Foundation is a foundation dedicated to helping more veterans train Jiu Jitsu to find healing.  They offer sponsorships and scholarships for students wanting to start training but short on resources.  If there is a We Defy sponsored school near you and you are a veteran, contact that school today to see how they can help you start your therapy on the mats.  Check out more veteran testimonials from their site as well.