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Hand-to-hand course helps soldiers avoid kidnapping

Oct. 13, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Krav Maga instructor Henry Hernandez, right, works with a soldier on how to disarm a potential kidnapper. The soldier and 19 others from Army South took part in captivity avoidance training on Sept. 25-27.
Krav Maga instructor Henry Hernandez, right, works with a soldier on how to disarm a potential kidnapper. The soldier and 19 others from Army South took part in captivity avoidance training on Sept. 25-27. (Michelle Tan / Staff)
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When Lt. Col. Greg Otto signed up for a three-day anti-terrorism class, he didn't bargain on getting a bloody nose.

When Lt. Col. Greg Otto signed up for a three-day anti-terrorism class, he didn't bargain on getting a bloody nose.

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SAN ANTONIO — When Lt. Col. Greg Otto signed up for a three-day anti-terrorism class, he didn’t bargain on getting a bloody nose.

“This is full-on intense,” said Otto, the counterterrorism program manager for Army South. “This is the realistic training we need.”

From Sept. 25 to Sept. 27, Otto and 19 other soldiers and civilians at Army South, based at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, wrestled, kicked and punched their way through the Army South counternarcotics anti-terrorism/anti-kidnapping training course. The three-day program, held at STW Krav Maga here, was organized by Army South’s Personnel Recovery Coordination Cell.

The PRCC is responsible for planning, leading and coordinating reintegration efforts Army-wide. It also conducts pre-deployment training for personnel traveling in the Army South area of operations.

The anti-terrorism and anti-kidnapping course is designed to prepare Army South personnel who travel, often unarmed and in small groups, throughout the command’s area of operations.

The training uses Krav Maga, the hand-to-hand combat system of the Israel Defense Forces, and teaches students how to defend against common chokes, grabs and bear hugs, as well as weapons such as guns, knives and sticks.

Otto is responsible for teams of subject-matter experts that are sent into the Army South AOR, he said. “Sometimes I have to go check on them, and sometimes they’re not in the nicest neighborhoods,” he said, adding that he plans to send his team members to the course. “This is one more tool in the toolkit to get me out of trouble.”

The PRCC has been holding these training events with STW since 2010, said Manuel Ochoa, who works at the PRCC.

The goal is to run this course three times a year, but the schedule depends on the availability of funds, Ochoa said. It costs almost $24,000 for 20 students for three days, he said.

The PRCC already provides high-risk isolation briefings and survival and evasion training for specific sets of personnel based on their missions, but it did not have anti-kidnapping training, he said.

“There’s been an increase in criminal activity against people and hostage takings in our AO,” Ochoa said. “Crime is going up, and we looked around and [decided to] apply some real scenarios to prepare our folks.”

Much of the training is influenced by incident reports and trends from the various U.S. embassies in the Army South area of operations, Ochoa said.

This summer, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent working in Colombia was kidnapped and murdered, Ochoa said.

Special Agent James Terry Watson got into a cab and was attacked by two men. One used a stun gun on Watson, and the other stabbed him. Watson managed to escape from the cab, but he died from his wounds.

In July, six Colombians were indicted by a federal grand jury in Watson’s death, according to the Justice Department.

The PRCC wants to make sure any lessons learned are applied to the training they give their personnel, Ochoa said, so the September training course included lessons on how to escape from a vehicle that comes under attack.

The two lead instructors for the anti-terrorism/anti-kidnapping course, Pete Hardy and Rick Bassett, have secret clearances, allowing them access to some of these reports to better plan the training, Ochoa said.

'Bad guys get better'

Hardy, the owner of STW Krav Maga, said he works closely with Army South to ensure the training is up-to-date and realistic.

“As we see things change, we evolve,” he said. “The bad guys get better, and we need to stay ahead of them.”

Bassett, a retired colonel who used to be the Army South chief of staff, is now the director of law enforcement and military defensive tactics training at STW.

Most of the Army South personnel who travel to the area of operations face a criminal threat. San Pedro Sula in Honduras, for example, is the so-called murder capital of the world, Bassett said.

The training teaches Army South personnel confidence and situational awareness, he said.

“There’s no ninja; there’s no magic here,” he said. “Some situations are horrible to be in. It’s trying to teach you how to be smart about how you conduct yourselves, and if you get in a bad situation how you can handle it.”

Ed Zarzabal, a retired lieutenant colonel who is now a medical plans and operations analyst for Army South,

volunteered for the course not really knowing what to expect.

“I wanted a foundation, a base, if God forbid I’m ever put in a situation like this downrange,” he said.

The training was so convincing that Zarzabal plans to learn more by joining STW.

“I wish it was mandatory for everyone who goes to our AOR,” he said. “I’m a believer, especially because some of the countries we go to are pretty rough, and we stick out, even when we dress down.”

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