Jeff Severns Guntzel, Senior Reporter for American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, penned an important blog on retired combat medic Kyle Dubay use of mixed martial arts to gain release from PTSD.
There is a loaded semiautomatic pistol on Kyle Dubay’s night stand in his tiny one-bedroom apartment just outside Phoenix, and a rifle under the bed.
But it’s not the guns that help him sleep – it’s the prescription pills.
Mr. Dubay, 28, was an infantry medic for three tours in Iraq. The nightmares started on his second tour. “You saw everybody having them,” he said. “People would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, swinging their fists.”
He received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder between his second and third tours. “I had a lot of anger,” he said, “a lot of things I just didn’t understand.”
Back home after his final deployment, the binge drinking and bar fights started. There was a bottom to the hole Mr. Dubay had fallen into. When he finally hit it, he was blacked out with a belly full of Jack Daniel’s and Percocets.
Deciding to get help, as Mr. Dubay did, meant asking for it, and there’s a stigma around that. “You’re not as much of a man,” he said. “You’re not as much of a soldier.” He paid no mind to all of that and started seeing a therapist. “It helped clarify things. It helped put things in order. But I was never really able to get that energy out.”
So he started fighting again, but this time it was different.
He had watched mixed martial arts on television. He was already a fan, and he figured his hand-to-hand combat training would be an asset.
There are now 10 young veterans training with him at Spartan Academy gym in Mesa, Arizona and finding similar relief. Mr. Dubay admitted that it was strange that the fighting seemed to be helping – “strangely comfortable” was how he described it.
I was suspicious, but after watching him at the gym, I got it. Most of his time at the gym is training, not fighting. There is something almost gentle about the training ritual. There is an engagement with a training partner, a drop to the mat and then often a quiet pause until one fighter says: “You all right? Let’s try that again.” Maybe the most important thing is that no matter how rough it gets, there are no actual enemies in that gym. That person who has you in a stranglehold doesn’t actually want to kill you. It’s a distinction the brain sometimes can’t make reliably after repeated combat exposure.
Mr. Dubay, right, trains Spartan Fighting Academy trainer Jeff Funicello in Mesa, Ariz.Michel Duarte for Public Insight Network Mr. Dubay, right, trains Spartan Fighting Academy trainer Jeff Funicello in Mesa, Ariz.
When he started at the gym, Mr. Dubay said, “I felt alive again.”
“When you’re in Iraq and you get into firefights, it’s the most alive and alert you’ll ever be in your life,” he said. “When I started fighting, I got a taste of that again. You’re alert. Your adrenaline is running. It’s you versus one other person, and there’s only one winner.”
Outside the gym, he started to notice that situations that used to make him angry or cause flashbacks didn’t faze him – at least not as much. Anxiety lost its stranglehold. Before the deployments, he said, his soft voice cracking: “I was always the person that loved everybody. Everybody loved me. I was so happy.” He’s training at the gym a few nights a week, and he’s even started to feel happiness again.
He’s been injured more than a few times at the gym. It’s hard on his body. But a medic knows how to perform triage. “Every medical issue I have is its own entity,” he said. “There might be some adverse effects on one issue while I work on another. It’s a balance game.”
For now, as long as he’s on that mat a few times a week, something he calls “the ball of fire” is under control and life after war seems manageable.
A recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that close to 30 percent of 834,463 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seen at a department hospital or clinic were treated or evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are conversations in the mental health field about whether it should be called PTSD at all – some suggest removing “disorder” and replacing it with “injury.” There is no shame in a combat injury, the argument goes, and a person who has shrapnel in his shoulder doesn’t stumble around drunk until it falls out. When you have an injury, you see a doctor – you get help.
The therapy has given him clarity. The fighting has given him a release. But Mr. Dubay’s story doesn’t have a happy ending – or a sad one. If anything, just three years after his final exit from Iraq, his story has only a beginning.