HELENA — The physically grueling martial art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is spiking in popularity around the world. Not only does the sport push their bodies through grappling and ground fighting, athletes say there are mental benefits, too — especially for combat veterans.
In fact, new research shows the sport can even help with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 11 to 20% who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year. About 12% of Gulf War veterans have PTSD each year. Estimates show about 30% of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.
At one Helena martial arts school, instructors say about a dozen combat veterans participate in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, plus even more service members and active duty military.
For them, BJJ isn't just exercise. It builds confidence, provides a network of friends, and can even help some veterans work through combat experiences.
“One day you have to go back and pay the price for it.”
Decorated Army veteran Anthony Butler has deployed four times, spending almost two years of his life in combat zones in Iraq.
"It’s years of boredom, with a few moments of terror,” said Butler, describing his time overseas during our interview in February.
Butler now lives in Helena with his wife and children, but he still remembers the difficult and life-changing moments from combat almost two decades ago.
In 2003, Butler commanded one of the lead infantry companies into Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq.
"I had two of my guys who were killed in just the first day of combat,” he said.
He also spent months with embedded NBC reporter David Bloom, who died after a deep vein thrombosis became a pulmonary embolism. Butler was responsible for evac'ing Bloom’s body from Iraq.
"That was a real tragedy, and that was weighing on us,” he said.
At one point, Butler helped seize Saddam Hussein’s son Uday’s palace. He then spent the rest of the war fighting in Fallujah.
According to Butler, two people in his company were killed in combat. In addition, five people in his battalion and about a dozen in his brigade were killed, with about 40 wounded.
“I’ve been on the ground when an IED has gone off, and someone lost a limb,” he said.
Butler said the physical experiences impacted his mental health. As an officer, he also felt additional pressure.
"There’s the perception, if you’re seeking any kind of mental help, that’s the kiss of death,” he said. "It’s just not something you ever do. There wasn’t a time, especially when I was there, when I was allowed or had a chance, a moment, to grieve."
“It accumulates, and one day you have to go back and pay the price for it.”
“It keeps me centered. It keeps me focused.”
Every Friday morning as the sun rises, you can find Butler teaching a jiu-jitsu class at Helena Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on Euclid Avenue. He said he hasn’t missed a week of training since he started the sport, when he returned home from deployment to Savannah, Georgia.
At that point, Butler hadn’t seen his wife in 15 months. He had trouble sleeping and would often wake up in the middle of the night, searching for his weapons. He coped with alcohol.
“To solve all my problems, I met this guy named Jack Daniels,” said Butler. “I liked to drink, but it wasn’t very helpful.”
"I tried to treat myself, for a number of years. But as time went on, I got worse and worse, and had a crisis."
Exercise, and the support of his wife, were Butler’s turning point.
He joined a jiu-jitsu club in Savannah and began training. He said he’d participated in the sport before, but that’s when he became obsessed with the sport, working at it nonstop.
When Butler moved afterwards, he’d either join another club or start one — eventually getting his black belt.
He also found help through the VA system and now uses traditional forms of therapy to cope with his PTSD diagnosis. But for him, the benefits of Brazilian jiu-jitsu for his mental health are almost just as important as getting help from a doctor.
“It’s a confidence builder,” he said. “Jiu-jistu has given me a place where I can center my life on. It’s where my friends emanate from, it’s where my physical fitness emanates from. It keeps me centered, it keeps me focused."
Butler isn’t alone.
A 2019 study published in Military Medicine revealed veterans who participated in Brazilian jiu-jitsu for five months showed marked improvements in their PTSD symptoms.
"A potential benefit of BJJ is that it forces its practitioners to engage in social interaction; the only way to practice and learn is to have training partners to grapple with,” researchers at the University of South Florida in Tampa wrote in their study. "In addition to social interaction, the training paradigm in this study could also provide a degree of social support, since the participants were interacting with others who shared similar life experiences.”
Butler said at his club in Helena, he knows a few other veterans who are on full disability for their PTSD. In the entire city, he knows of at least a dozen veterans dealing with mental health issues. He wants others to join him for a class — and know they’re not alone, either.
"You feel isolated,” Butler said of life after combat. “It’s easy to feel isolated, and jiu-jitsu helps fill that hole.”
Helena BJJ is located at 1410 Euclid Avenue in Helena. Their phone number is 406-282-4963. There are classes for adults and kids almost every day of the week.