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POW: How MMA is Helping US Veterans With PTSD

POW: How MMA is Helping US Veterans With PTSD

“A prisoner of war doesn’t necessarily have to be incarcerated in another country. In our case, it means returning veterans are prisoners of the memories and the experience; for us, it is our program for setting such POW’s free: Pugilistic Offensive Warrior Tactics of San Diego–a program that integrates veterans back to civilian life in healthy ways – as a brotherhood.”

It’s Independence Day in the United States. Maybe you’re looking forward to some “time in the sun” — fireworks tonight, and a good barbecue with family and friends. It’s also a nice time to reflect on the sacrifices of the armed services.

So, maybe the fights in the rings and cages aren’t the first thing on your mind today. But there are other fights to be fought, and MMA is playing a part in winning one for US veterans.

The members of our armed forces who serve our country abroad can sometimes find themselves in another battle upon their return; healing from wounds both visible and invisible. Awareness is growing for the condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can keep returning veterans from integrating back into civilian life. A growing organization of former veterans is using mixed martial arts to treat it.

San Diego MMA instructor Todd Vance was diagnosed with PTSD as he struggled to return to civilian life after completing two tours of duty with the US Army in Iraq.

Vance had enjoyed an amateur Muay Thai career in his youth, and was a member of the US Army boxing team who also trained soldiers in the US Army Combatives (hand-to-hand combat) program.

But it was a tough transition back to civilian life – one he describes as being marked by anxiety and anger; leading to heavy drinking and bar brawls, sleepless nights and nightmares.

He began training in mixed martial arts, with San Diego MMA standouts like current UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz. He found renewed focus, stopped the street fighting, and got his life back on track. He also recently completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work.

In 2010, Vance began a mixed martial arts team made solely of veterans like him, with the goal, per Vance’s website: “helping the returning vet to alleviate symptoms of PTSD and the sense of isolation, depression, and anger typical of the returning vet who have been a part of the horrors of war.” It has grown into a non-profit organization, POW, for Pugilistic Offensive Warrior tactics.

In an interview on San Diego’s KUSI TV, Vance described how, in the military, “You’re re-wired to perform at 0 to 100 miles per hour.”

“Now, when I hear a bang on the side of the road,” he continues. “If I duck behind an engine block and look for an enemy to go towards, that’s going to make me stick out. That keeps people away from public settings. They isolate and get stuck in their own head. They self-medicate. That’s what this is trying to prevent.”

Vance and the POW program were recently profiled on NPR, HBO Real Sports, and NBC San Diego.

“It’s unbelievable how big it’s gotten,” he ends. “How many guys have stepped up and become leaders themselves because of it. I sleep well at night because of it.”

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