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Photos: US Army Combatives Tournament, JBER

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  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published March 23, 2013

Some 100 soldiers gathered at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson Thursday and Friday to determine who was toughest when guns were put aside.

The 2013 Combatives Tournament at the Buckner Physical Fitness Center involved mixed martial arts (MMA)-style hand-to-hand combat involving only knives, sticks or other weapons that cannot be fired. More important was the skill and reaction speed of the soldier – talents that can prove essential not only in controlled fights in the octagon, but deployed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy may emerge swiftly without warning.

"You never know when you're gonna find yourself involved in anything like this," said Staff Sgt. Nathan Tledger of JBER. "And the octagon gives you an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of the SPEAR (Spontaneous Protective Enabling Accelerated Reponse) System. It's your startle flinch – how you react when someone startles you or strikes at you. And everyone has it – that fight-or-flight mode.

"The first time you get punched in the face, you don't want it to be for your life. Once you've had a taste of combat in a controlled environment, you're better suited for it the next time you face it if it happens to be in combat."

Over the course of two days there was punching. There was blood. There were black eyes as soldiers from JBER, Fort Greely, Fort Wainwright and the Army National Guard in Alaska competed in eight different weight classes from bantamweight to heavyweight. Soldiers were divided by weight and skill level -- standard, intermediate and advanced – but not by sex. Men and women competed side by side in their weight classes.

The three skill levels "provide safety for the fighters," Tledger said. "Someone who's never been knocked down or never been in a ring, you don't want them all of a sudden up against a Golden Gloves boxer. But you want to make it as competitive as possible and give them that opportunity.

"You might have guys who are great wrestlers who have never been punched in the face. And you might have guys who are great boxers but they've never wrestled before."

Some things are banned. Fighters can't knee down an opponent, use ankle locks or twist knees. "We're not here to injure soldiers," Tledger said. Still, that leaves such things as full-fist punches, knee strikes below the waist, kicks to the head, grappling and submissions as legal.

The Army believes that "proficiency in hand-to-hand combat is one of the fundamental building blocks of training the modern soldier (needed to) instill the 'warrior instinct' to provide the necessary aggression to meet the enemy unflinchingly."

Many military operations, such as peacekeeping missions or evacuations, may restrict the use of deadly weapons, and hand-to-hand combatives, which has been part of basic training for years, will save lives when an unexpected confrontation occurs, Tledger added.

The first- and second-place finishers in each weight class earn gold and silver medals and advance to compete in all-Army tournaments in the Lower 48. This year's will be at Fort Carson in Colorado in August.

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