Staff Sgt. James Vanwert of 3rd Battalion, 360th Regiment, 5th Armored Brigade, spars with an opponent at the 3rd Battalion, 6th Air Defense Artillery Bde. combatives facility here Aug. 14. Photo by Pfc. Jennifer Kennemer, 16th MPAD.
Pfc. Jennifer Kennemer
The small group of Soldiers arrives before the sun, removes their footwear and takes to the mat. These Soldiers are dedicated to learning the positions and skills that will help them succeed at the All Army Combatives Tournament scheduled for Sept. 18 through 20 at Fort Benning, Ga.
The modern Army combatives program, a four-level system, was developed from Brazilian jiu jitsu techniques to teach Soldiers how to engage and defend against enemies in close-combat situations.
The Fort Bliss combatives team has a month to prepare for the tournament, but Staff Sgt. James C. Vanwert of 3rd Battalion, 360th Regiment, 5th Armored Brigade, 1st Armored Division, has trained rigorously for the past six months.
As the primary combatives instructor at McGregor Range, N.M., Vanwert is responsible for teaching an eight-hour version of the Army combatives program to units slated to deploy. Combatives is not only his personal passion, but a professional niche within the Army for the staff sergeant.
“I love everything about combatives. It’s so technical and beautiful,” said Vanwert, a Spokane, Wash., native who deployed to Iraq in 2003.
Vanwert originally enlisted as a heavy machine operator, and his involvement with combatives grew from impromptu boxing matches to alleviate the stress and boredom of deployment. Upon returning to the United States, he was tapped by the 70th Regional Readiness Command, headquartered in Seattle, Wash., to create a program for Army Reservists.
Since then, Vanwert has spent the majority of his time teaching combatives at different military installations and across military services.
“The combatives system has proven itself,” he said. “[Through combatives], instead of Soldiers going into a fight empty-handed and not knowing what to do – maybe breaking the rules of engagement out of fear – they know exactly how to control someone, how to take an uncontrollable situation and control it.”
Relying on force and not technique is the most common mistake Soldiers new to combatives make, said Vanwert.
“If you get into a situation when you are fighting in war, the fight might not end with one person. A lot of people use all their energy in the first 30 seconds,” said Vanwert.
Stamina is also key for the All Army Combatives Tournament, which, depending on the result of the opening match, may require anywhere from six to 10 matches, because a loss places the Soldier in a separate bracket and increases the number of potential matches.
At last year’s competition, Vanwert was hampered by an injury, poor nutrition habits and nervousness. This year, the fighter said, he is far more prepared.
When Vanwert is not teaching combatives to Soldiers, he trains five times a week with Fort Bliss combatives team instructor D.J. Blackwell, utilizes local canyons to bike and run, and spars and practices striking.
“Staff Sergeant Vanwert is disciplined and dedicated,” said Eric J. Howard, combatives specialist for the Fort Bliss Mission Support Element. In addition to organizing and coordinating the team, his focus is on integrating combatives into units’ wartime missions.
“From what I’ve seen, he embodies all the criteria that make up a great martial artist, and he is a great example of the Warrior Ethos for his unit,” Howard said.
Combatives increases confidence and mental acuity, said Vanwert. Changing the lives of Soldiers is his personal motivation to excel and train hard.
His goal is to improve on his fifth-place finish at last year’s All Army Combatives Tournament and compete in the final free-fight round.