PHOENIX — Arizona military veterans are participating in a clinical study to see if Brazilian jiu-jitsu can lessen their post-traumatic stress disorder.
Marine veteran Jean-Paul "JP" Villont and Army veteran Garrick Billy served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. After they returned home, they sought help for their PTSD, but they continued to struggle.
"I sort of drifted away from reality," Billy said.
Two years ago, both men found Stateside Warriors, which offers services to military veterans and first responders. Villont and Billy tried an unconventional form of fighting therapy for PTSD.
"It's mindfulness in the disguise of combat sports, so you're in the moment and not thinking about anything else," Villont said.
One of their instructors is Joe Lutrario, a former New York police officer who developed PTSD after responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"PTSD does not allow you any peace whatsoever," Lutrario said. "Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, your mind is on overload - a range of emotions."
"Step one is just to get out and go back to being a human, social person," said Stateside Warriors founder Shane Sorenson. He combines martial arts instruction with building a brotherhood. Sorenson said they talk before and after class, and they go to lunch or to watch martial arts fights on the weekend.
A local military psychologist is studying the veterans and their mental health results. Tracey Burraston points out that 20 veterans a day are dying by suicide, and traditional methods in clinical psychology are not preventing many deaths. She is dedicated to finding alternatives, and she believes Brazillian jiu-jitsu is a promising option.
"When they first went into the study, they were scoring 100 percent PTSD, and then we noticed about 60 hours on the mat everything started to change," Burraston said. She hopes to publish her findings a scholarly journal later this year.
Researchers from the University of South Florida are also finding positive results as they study the impact of both Brazillian jiu-jitsu and yoga on PTSD symptoms.
"The Veterans Administration is particularly interested in these alternative approaches," USF Prof. Kevin Kip said. "They want the veteran to have more choices. I think some of these could have benefit."
The veterans' smiles back the early scientific results as they practiced techniques during a training session on Memorial Day. Villont told ABC15 that he has a "longer fuse" now. He is feeling less road rage and more patience with his family. Billy said he made such a significant improvement that he no longer needs his mental health medication.
"It's like I leave it all on the mat - all of the negative energy that I consume that day," Billy said. "I come walking out the door like a brand new man."