ST. PAULS, N.C. – It is 8 a.m. in St. Pauls, N.C., and the North Carolina National Guard armory’s concrete floor is covered with wrestling mats.
The air inside the dark, dusty building smells like sweat. A sea of almost 100 uniformed Soldiers rolled and crawled across the mats in preparation for the day’s training. They are already tired; their instructor has spent the last hour wearing them out before the grappling starts.
A few minutes of instruction on another combatives move and the soldiers are told to pair up. They have two minutes to try and gain control over their opponent.
Standing among the kneeling soldiers, Sgt. Juan Gonzalez, the primary combatives instructor for the 171st Engineer Company, yells “go” and the room erupts in shouting across the thousands of square feet of mats. Soldiers struggle with all their power to pin their opponent to the ground.
These soldiers are learning to fight for their lives, using no weapons except for their bodies and the skills they are being taught through the Modern Army Combatives Program.
The 171st Engineer Company performed this training March 2 in preparation for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan this fall in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Hand-to-hand combat skills will ensure that the soldiers can protect themselves in battle and bolsters their individual and team confidence.
Gonzalez, a squad leader with the 171st, said learning combatives builds confidence, and has many applications outside of fighting.
“[Combatives] translates into so many other things,” Gonzalez said. “It’s so big. It’s not just teaching someone how to fight, it’s about being able to take a hit and keep going.”
Sgt. Robert Norton, a combat engineer with the 171st, said he has used combative skills in his military job and in his civilian job as a corrections officer.
“When you are deployed you never know what you may be tasked with; you may be on gate guard checking locals coming on-base,” Norton said. “If someone is trying to sneak something on-base and you are searching them and they get violent with you, you might need to subdue them and you can use combatives to do that.”
“I’ve had to use it in my civilian job as a corrections officer quite a few times to control people with take-down techniques,” Norton said.
Gonzalez believes that practicing combatives also helps make the unit a stronger team.
“The soldiers see the other guys holding their own out there,” Gonzalez said.
The soldiers spent part of the training challenging others to a one-on-one grappling competition; one soldier even stepped into the mat of the 171st to challenge the company commander.
The soldier didn’t pin the commander, but he fought hard until his time was over, impressing others in the crowd.
“It shows that in combat or even in training, that guy doesn’t stop, he gave everything he had,” said Gonzalez.
Pfc. Hunter Riley, a combat engineer with the 171st, said combatives helped him realize he is stronger than he thought he was.
“I didn’t know if I would be able to keep up with some of the other soldiers,” Riley said. “Not necessarily being able to dominate other people, but being able to hold me own built up my confidence.”
The training also gave him faith in the determination of his fellow soldiers.
“It’s great to see it, and it may not be a combat situation, but in any kind of special situation, they will keep going,” Riley said. “I know I can count on them and I know they can handle anything.”
Gonzalez said that the unit plans on incorporating combatives into their training as much as possible to help make the unit a better team.
With a deployment less than a year away, the 171st is doing everything they can to prepare themselves to work as a team and be ready for any mission they are faced with.
The soldiers spent five hours grappling, practicing moves and exhausting every ounce of energy they had. They practiced their moves. They called out fellow soldiers to fight. Some won and some lost, but they all fought as hard as they could.
By the end of the day, the soldiers are sweaty, tired and worn out – but they are all smiling.
Today they are all winners. Their prize: a new sense of confidence in themselves, and pride in their fellow 171st soldiers’ ability to keep on fighting.
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