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Veterans With PTSD Are Learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Fightland Blog

By Aurora Ford

Chad Robichaux is 38 years old but still fighting. And winning. Last month, he won his World Series of Fighting debut by choking out 24-year-old Andrew Yates. Chad is a 2nd degree black belt under Carlos Gracie Jr., a former Legacy Fighting Championship bantamweight champion, and head coach of the Gracie Barra Gym in Magnolia, Texas, which gives 100% of its proceeds go to the Mighty Oaks Division of the Roever Foundation, which helps America’s veterans living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Chad started Mighty Oaks after his own battles with PTSD, the result of eight tours of duty in Afghanistan, nearly lost him everything he cared about.

Fightland: So, what happened to you?
Chad Robichaux: After 9/11 I deployed to Afghanistan for eight tours over many years. When I came home I was diagnosed with PTSD. I spent about three years struggling with that and all the things that come with that. And not just me, my family struggled. I’ve been married almost 19 years, I have three teenagers--just an incredible family that I almost lost to PTSD just because I didn’t know how to handle all the things I was dealing with internally. And martial arts was a big a part of that because I came home and one of the only things I felt like I could do was martial arts. When I grappled I felt grounded. I felt safe. I couldn’t think about anything else, or about Afghanistan because I was so focused and if I thought of something else, you know, I’d get choked.

But, also like any good medicine it can be abused and I abused it. I started to be really successful, I started a school that eventually had over a thousand students, I was fighting in Strikeforce and Legacy, and I was undefeated. So, on the surface everything appeared really great, but at home I was falling apart. I was taking the one thing that was good for me, which was jiu-jitsu, and abusing it. I’d spend 10 or 12 hours a day in the gym and leave everything I had there. I had no balance in my life and it took everything to come crashing down for me to see that. My wife eventually cornered me and challenged me. She was like, “How can you put in the discipline it takes to prepare for these fights, go to Afghanistan and fight for your country and fight for your buddies, but when you come home, you’re ready to give up on the most important things?” She really stuck it to me and I had to take it seriously. So I turned things around. I started putting the same work and discipline into my personal life that I had put into my fighting and military career to be successful. I was able to return balance to my life and I realized that I could use my experience with my own battles and with martial arts to help other people.

So, I started using my fights to promote and support the cause of other veterans that were going through what I had gone through. That’s when we started the foundation. Now I’m able to use that platform to inspire people and to be a silent hope. I love that part of it. Obviously I compete because I have the drive to compete but it means so much to me to be able to give others hope.

You were 17 when you joined the Marines, why did you join up?
My dad was a Marine. Since a really early age I had the desire to join some kind of Special Forces. I don’t know where it came from, but I always loved the water, and I think I saw a movie about Special Forces doing some diving operation, and then I always wanted to do that. I wanted to either be a Force Recon Marine or a Navy Seal. I chose the Marines, went infantry, and then within the first year I was accepted into Special Operations process to be a Recon Marine.

Were there specific experiences or incidents in your tours that you think were the direct cause of your PTSD?
Well, there are a lot of guys that can isolate one particular incident, but for me, I did so many deployments over such a long period of time, I spent a lot of time in very isolated environments out in the middle of nowhere-Afghanistan where help is a long way away, and I think that all that time being away from home, the isolation and stress and the accumulation of numerous little incidents is really what did it. Obviously there were some bad ones, but there were so many altogether. I never felt stress during any actual combat scenarios, but it was just the build-up of everything.

I lost a good friend, Foster Harrington. We worked together as Recon Marines for 10 years. He went to Iraq and I went to Afghanistan and he was killed and I suffered a lot of guilt because we were supposed to be in it together and I wasn’t there with him when it mattered. I started having problems and didn’t tell anybody. Stress, anxiety, panic attacks, not knowing where I was, and it all went untreated because I wasn’t willing to admit what was happening to me. But eventually that really boiled over. And that’s most guys that I talk to and work with: It’s the accumulation of a ton of little things more than it is just one incident.

What did your PTSD look like?
The worst thing was the panic attacks. I felt like my body was just going to stop working at any moment. I felt like my heart was going to stop pumping. I felt like I needed to be in a straight jacket but was afraid to tell anyone because I was afraid I’d actually get put in one. I felt this sort of imminent fear that my body would shut down and that I couldn’t keep it together, and it was terrifying because I’d never experienced anything like that before. I always felt like I was a very strong person, I was able to work under tremendous amount of stress and perform well, and then almost overnight I almost couldn’t do anything, I was so racked with fear. Basic things even. And I couldn’t get the help that I needed. It was just me and my wife and her trying to carry me through it. And of course she had no idea what to do; she wasn’t trained in any way to handle that. But the one thing her and my counselor both recognized was that the only thing that made me feel comfortable was doing jiu-jitsu and grappling so we opened that school and it became a success.

There was a story on NPR years back about the severe difficulties that returning veterans were facing in getting the help they needed for their PTSD. In some cases they were dishonorably discharged for the very symptoms they were reporting, even if they’d previously been stellar soldiers. They reported not being able to get out of bed or get to work, or that they needed to use drugs to hang on to their sanity, and then would be fired for these same infractions while waiting to get help for them. Is that still the way things are?
It is still the case. I mean, I don’t want to bash the military. I work directly with the war battalions of the Marine Corps and the warrior transition units of the Army. They send guys to us on active duty so we can help them out. The thing is, the people there in those units in command, they go out of their way to help those guys as much as possible. But the issue is one, getting them in to get help, and two, when the guys do get in trouble, I don’t know if the compassion is there during the actual scenario. Guys will exhibit these symptoms of anxiety, which leads to numbing or disassociation or drug use or violent behaviors, etc., but when they get in trouble there’s no compassion. Or at least very little from what we’ve seen. They get in trouble and they get kicked out or they lose rank, and it’s really sad.

Where I see the biggest problem is when the guys get out. When that happens, they try to get help through the VA and the waiting lists there are so long. Guys are waiting a year to get an appointment and they’re in the middle of these desperate, imminent situations and here they are trying to do all this paperwork and it’s beyond frustrating for them. Or there’s the situation where the guys are directed to go to college to use their GI Bill, but what they’re not told is that if they get a D or lower in their classes because they can’t focus, they owe that money back. So a lot of guys end up in these really desperate situations, you feel like your back is against a wall. I think that’s why you see in our Active Duty military you see one suicide a day, but in our veterans it’s 22 suicides. Every day. Because that frustration trying to reintegrate, the lack of the brotherhood outside the military that you’d become used to, having no one to look out for you--it just becomes too much for some of these guys and the suicide rates just skyrocket once they get out. It’s hard to blame the VA because I think the people there are doing the best they can, but they don’t really know how to handle such a massive problem. All they can really do is medicate the symptoms. I don’t agree with how they handle it, but nor do I know how to fix it. How do you handle so many people so fast? The funding they get to work with is just not enough. I keep hoping the government will step in to help out here. We owe it to these guys who have sacrificed so much, in some cases their sanity, to take care of them.

How is martial arts utilized in your foundation?
We run a program we call Fight Club. It actually came from the challenge my wife put to me about fighting for what was important in my life. We use fighting as a parallel. We use jiu-jitsu as a form of replacement conditioning therapy. They’ll do jiu-jitsu either for recreation or they can do a year-long vocational program we have that’s sponsored by Gracie Barra that allows them to be able to work in a gym. They become certified as either a coach or a program director. When I say replacement conditioning therapy I mean that we learn to replace a bad behavior with a good behavior. When they get the urge to get wasted or take a few more pills, then we replace that with training, or we create a workout they can do at midnight when the gym is closed and they’re stuck at home, instead of drinking or taking pills.

How do you gauge the success of the program?
Well, I can say this: There is a 90% divorce rate in our veterans, and the 22 suicides a day. And we’ve had 1500 graduates in the last two years of our program, with zero suicides and no divorces that we’re aware of, and we keep pretty good tabs. I don’t want to say it’s 100% successful, but all indications are that we’re batting 100%.

Check out these related stories:

Peace Through Fighting (and Tattoos)

No Easy Life: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Cerebral Palsy

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