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Fight club reawakens and channels veterans' warrior spirit

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SAN DIEGO — Todd Vance — Iraq combat veteran, bar bouncer, and social-work major at a local university — is lecturing two dozen of his fellow veterans on the techniques and joys of the chokehold.

"You want the blade of your forearm on their windpipe or carotid artery," Vance says in a commanding voice. "Push your opponent into the fence.…Let's have some fun with this drill!"

It's Saturday morning in North Park, and the veterans have come to a steamy, noisy gym for Vance's mixed martial arts class. It's a fight club of sorts, for those who already have fought a war.

PHOTOS: Veterans fight club

Vance, 31, a former Army sergeant, uses mixed martial arts to help veterans cope with post-combat problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues involving the uneasy transition back to civilian life.

His unconventional — and unofficial — approach had drawn a small, loyal following among veterans, and qualified endorsement from psychologists who work with veterans.

Jeffrey Matloff, senior psychologist and PTSD specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego, said that as long as veterans learn self-control and not to use their skills outside the context of sports, a martial arts approach can help restore self-confidence and focus.

"When it comes to PTSD, therapy alone doesn't have all the answers," he said.

The controlled sparring, similar to a veteran's original training, "assists wounded warriors to evoke the competitive warrior identity and spirit that may have become latent when the service member was injured," said Nancy Kim, a psychologist at the Naval Medical Center San Diego's Comprehensive Combat and Casualty Care facility, who has known patients who have attended. Patients, however, should be cleared by a doctor before participating, she said.

Once he gets his degree from Point Loma Nazarene University, Vance dreams of opening his own gym that would mix counseling and high-energy workouts. For the past two years he's been offering classes three days a week at the Undisputed boxing and martial arts gym on University Avenue.

Classes are free, and for veterans only.

Vance used a similar sweat-based regimen when he returned from Iraq and struggled with PTSD, anxiety, nightmares and a load of anger.

"He was a mess," said Vance's mother, Dianne Ratzel, who lives in the Carmel Valley neighborhood. "He was angry, confused, combative. He got into fights and drank a lot; I was afraid he would get hurt."

The tattoos on his heavily muscled body tell the story of his post-Iraq transformation. Among his oldest tattoos are a "knuckle sandwich" and the letters FTW, which stand for "… The World." A more recent tattoo on his upper leg has a skull and the letters PMA, which stand for "Positive Mental Attitude."

For 90 minutes, the veterans punch, kick and wrestle each other inside a padded cage with wire sides. Except for a brief hydration break, there is no let up. Techno music blares ceaselessly.

"Strong bodies, strong minds, let's go," Vance commands. "Let's give you a taste of jujitsu."

In the Army, Vance was an infantry squad leader. He knows how to give orders in a clipped, no-nonsense tone, the kind that brings an immediate response.

Right now, it's teaching the whirling round-kick: "Turn that hip over. Turn that hip over — that's where the power comes from," Vance shouts. "Too many people who fight these days suck at kicking. I hate watching that stuff."

At one session, a student asked whether the round-kick to the head should precede or follow the push kick to the chest. Precede, says Vance.

"I like to hurt people and then put them away," he says, in a tone devoid of irony or exaggeration.

Many of the veterans in Vance's class are receiving counseling in the military or at the VA and are on medication for depression or anxiety. Vance sees his classes as an addition to, not a substitute for, traditional therapy.

"I don't run a 'group' therapy session," said Vance, who has a prescription for Xanax, the anti-anxiety drug, and credits a VA counselor for helping him. "But I can see my students talking to each other about things they don't even talk to their families about."

Jason Jones, 33, who served 13 years in the Marine Corps including a deployment to Iraq, is on anti-depressants. "I come here and I feel better than I do when I leave the VA," he said.

One of Vance's most dedicated students is Mike Judd, who served in the Army in Iraq and is now an outreach counselor at Veterans Village of San Diego, a nonprofit residential treatment program funded in part by the VA. Too often, Judd said, veterans are given only medication, when what they want is the physical exertion and discipline that was so integral to their military experience.

"We're the young generation of veterans," Judd said. "We still have plenty of energy, plenty of anger, plenty of passion. We need to begin tapping into that."

At the beginning of each class, students circle up and announce their names and branch of service.

"Coming here is the closest thing to being back with my squad, down-range, since I got back from Iraq," said John Meyers, 38, an Army veteran. "It's something I need."

Meyers' wife, Whitney, 28, was an Army truck driver in Iraq and is one of the few women who attend the class regularly. "It relieves a lot of the stress that you get from going from the military to civilian life," she said.

Sandy Henschel occasionally accompanies her husband, Travis, 36, who served in the Army in Iraq. She watches the session with appreciation.

"Psychologically this is the best I've seen him since he was medically retired" due to injuries, she said. "It's given him something to look forward to."

The classes are free — the gym has donated the time slot to use the training cage — but Vance sells T-shirts that say POW, which stands in this case for "Pugilistic Offensive Warrior."

"Many of the veterans are prisoners of their own minds," Vance said. "We need to free up their minds through exercise."

On this Saturday, Vance brought a fellow bar-bouncer, Zoran Janicipevic, 43, formerly of the special forces in his native Serbia, to put the students through some warmups. "He's done his share of soldiering so listen to what he says," Vance instructs.

At the end of each session, the veterans, sweaty, exhausted, and emotionally drained, gather in a circle for a shout of group solidarity until their next session: "Brotherhood!"

tony.perry@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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