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Losing a 'life-or-death skill'?

Proponents fight planned changes to combatives training

Sep. 9, 2013 - 03:31PM   |  
Sgt. Michael Pegg, left, of 1st Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), competes against Spc. Jonathan Grondel of 529th Regimental Support Company, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., in a combatives tournament. The status of the Army's combatives program is in question.
Sgt. Michael Pegg, left, of 1st Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), competes against Spc. Jonathan Grondel of 529th Regimental Support Company, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., in a combatives tournament. The status of the Army's combatives program is in question. (Army)
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Planned changes to combatives training have proponents fighting for the survival of the program and the “life-or-death” skills it teaches.

These hand-to-hand skills save lives, and lives are at risk without those abilities developed over the course of the combatives program, they say.

The Modern Army Combatives Program, headquartered at Fort Benning, Ga., consists of four skill-level courses — a weeklong basic course, a two-week tactical course, and a basic combatives instructor course and a tactical combatives instructor course, each of which is four weeks long.

Proposals from Training and Doctrine Command call for eliminating all four levels of training and creating a master combatives trainer course that would be no more than two weeks long.

In an email obtained by Army Times, officials from TRADOC call for “implementation of the new program as quickly as possible.”

Officials at the combatives school at Fort Benning have until Sept. 30 to come up with a two-week curriculum for the proposed master combatives trainer course, said a senior noncommissioned officer who asked that his name be withheld.

Officials from TRADOC declined to respond to requests for information from Army Times.

If the proposed changes come through, in addition to the elimination of competitions, “I think it’s going to be detrimental to the force moving forward,” the senior NCO said. “We’re taking away so much training, and it’s not only soldiers’ ability to fight, but confidence, instilling the warrior ethos in the individual soldier, and some of those intangibles that can’t be measured.”

“It’s a life-or-death skill,” said Staff Sgt. Colton Smith, chief combatives instructor for III Corps and Fort Hood, Texas. In December, the two-tour Iraq veteran won “The Ultimate Fighter,” Spike TV’s reality mixed martial arts competition. He said combatives are essential to his job as an infantryman.

“Being the fastest runner or the best ruck marcher or the best guy who does pullups and pushups, that’s great,” Smith said. “But it doesn’t save lives like combatives.

“Hand-to-hand situations will happen,” he added. “You run out of ammo, your weapon malfunctions. This is the last line of defense you have to protect yourself and your men.”

Growing experts

Proposed changes to combatives training call for the program to be boiled down primarily to 15 tasks outlined in STP 21-1, “Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks, Warrior Skills Level 1.” These tasks, under the heading “React to Man-to-Man Contact,” include basic techniques on how to achieve a clinch, do a front take-down, and how to gain a dominant position when faced with an enemy fighter.

The changes, if approved, would water down the training and potentially be more dangerous as less experienced instructors teach the program, combatives proponents said.

“We have standards for everything in the Army,” he said. “Why would we not have standards across the force for [combatives]?”

It takes time to grow subject-matter experts, said Matt Larsen, the former director of the combatives program. Graduates of the tactical instructor course are meant to be responsible for combatives training at a brigade-sized or larger unit.

“You don’t become a subject-matter expert in anything in a matter of two or three weeks,” he said. “What people learn in combatives school is how to conduct realistic, difficult and safe training.”

The combatives program began in the mid-1990s as a grass-roots training regimen in the 2nd Ranger Battalion and was formally established in Army doctrine in 2002. It was approved Army-wide by then-Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who said every soldier should “experience the physical and emotional demands of hand-to-hand fighting prior to engaging in combat.”

In 2004, he directed commanders to incorporate combatives into collective training and to hold competitions to give soldiers maximum exposure to this “fundamental building block for combat.”

A safety issue

Sean Roberts, the lead combatives instructor for 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley, Kan., said changing combatives training puts soldiers at risk.

“Any significant changes to the training model could result in serious potential for increased injury rates and reduced operational preparedness for soldiers,” he said.

The training model exists for a reason, Roberts said.

“It’s so that, at each level, the soldier becomes proficient, and it requires hundreds of hours,” he said. “You can’t have an individual who’s received a minimum amount of training have maximum responsibility and not expect catastrophic failure at some point.”

In March, citing budget cuts, TRADOC announced that it was scaling back or postponing a number of its annual competitions, including the annual all-Army combatives tournament.

This year’s tournament, set for late summer at Fort Carson, Colo., was canceled. In addition, unit-level combatives competitions in all TRADOC units are postponed unless the unit requests and receives an exception to policy.

TRADOC officials, at the time, denied complaints from soldiers that TRADOC was banning combatives tournaments because of the nature of the training.

TRADOC “sees significant value in the combatives program,” spokesman Col. Christian Kubik said at the time.

The training includes “hard and arduous physical training that is, at the same time, also mentally demanding and carries over to the other military pursuits,” he said.

The elimination of combatives competitions and a directive to remove all references to competitions in combatives doctrine is a safety issue, the senior NCO said.

“We don’t allow certain techniques that are authorized in civilian mixed-martial arts because we deemed it too high-risk that soldiers may be potentially injured,” he said.

These techniques include elbow strikes or knees to the head.

Without established rules for how to run a combatives tournament in the Army, some of these techniques could creep into the events “because there’s no guidance,” the senior NCO said.

Warrior ethos

During a typical year, about 700 soldiers will complete the basic combatives instructor course and about 120 will complete the tactical combatives instructor course, the senior NCO said.

Last year, these instructors in turn trained almost 60,000 soldiers in the basic course and more than 18,000 in the tactical course at their respective home stations. The combatives school also sends mobile training teams to bring the instructor courses to soldiers across the Army, and the demand is high, the senior NCO said.

The half-dozen or so teams for fiscal 2014 have been locked in for various units, and at least five other units have so far offered to pay for an MTT with their own funds, the senior NCO said.

“The real purpose of combatives training is to have an Army infused with the warrior ethos,” Larsen said, citing the March 23, 2003, ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah, Iraq. The soldiers, including former Pvt. Jessica Lynch, who was captured and rescued, all knew how to maintain and shoot their weapons and conduct land navigation, Larsen said.

“But they got lost, and all their weapons malfunctioned, because they didn’t think those skills were for them, because you don’t teach the warrior ethos on the rifle range or when cleaning your weapons or any other of the numerous tasks that soldiers have to be able to perform,” he said. “What went wrong in the 507th Maintenance Company is those soldiers never knew that they were soldiers first, and being a soldier means being the one who has to potentially close with the enemy.

“We know that the modern battlefield, which involves substantial fighting in close quarters, within buildings, within built-up areas, makes hand-to-hand combat much more likely than it even was in previous conflicts,” he said, and thousands of soldiers can “attest to the fact that they’ve used what they learned in the program in combat and are alive because of it.”

Those lessons learned must not be forgotten, Larsen said.

“I have confidence that the leaders of today’s Army are warriors, and they will make the right decision, and we won’t re-create that pre-Jessica Lynch Army,” he said. “The lesson we really learned in this war is that there’s no such thing as a non-combat [military occupational specialty].”

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