Putting a chokehold on PTSD

By Tony Perry

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.

Vance, 31, a former Army sergeant, uses mixed martial arts to help veterans cope with post-combat problems, includingpost-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.

READ STORY: Fight club reawakens and channels veterans’ warrior spirit