A sad reality of warfare is that veterans return from the battlefield dealing with post-traumatic stress. Veteran suicide is an unfortunate but prevalent issue affecting the lives of military families across the nation. The We Defy Foundation, with its objective geared towards providing jiu-jitsu scholarships for at-risk veterans, is on a mission to provide physically and mentally wounded veterans of war with a healthy outlet to re-acclimate them back into civilian life. At a recent end-of-the-year gala held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, triple amputee war veteran, cofounder of We Defy, and purple belt Joey Bozik speaks about the very real impact he has seen in some of his comrades.
“I’ve seen [veterans] who were literally about ready to eat a bullet weeks or days before they found out about the foundation and started training jiu-jitsu, to people with extreme obesity,” says the Purple Heart recipient. “We have examples of individuals, people that had anxiety, medications, mobility issues, overweight, psychological [issues], whatever the case may be. They found the foundation, they started training jiu-jitsu, and they start finding their way back.”
The event at the Intercontinental was just one such example of engaging with the jiu-jitsu community in an effort to expand on their vision. To sponsor one veteran for one year of training, the bill sits at roughly $2500. The foundation currently has over 400 schools nationwide already approved and ready to begin absorbing veterans into their program, with over 50 veterans currently under scholarship. Each school is vetted to make sure the instructors come from a certifiable lineage and that they are equipped to handle a veteran’s case. The schools are paid by the foundation, and there is an expectation that the instructor will go through the due process of engaging the veteran into the program in a fraternal manner, similar to the bonds experienced between service members at war.
One speaker at the event was armed forces veteran and 5th degree black belt Chris Haueter, who expands on this idea:
“I always liked Joey’s quote the best, ‘Jiu-jitsu is not the answer, but it can help you find the answers’. [Jiu-jitsu] is a tool that enables you to solve problems under stress and pressure. It also is a community and a very intimate thing. You connect with others at a very intimate level, which is often what you miss when you separate from the military. You miss that close bond and you get that back. I think it’s absolutely critical to reconnect with other guys who’ve served, people who haven’t, from all walks of life, to reintegrate you into the world,” he adds.
Watch this video starting at 3:35 to hear more about why jiu-jitsu works as a therapy:
The We Defy Foundation was founded in 2015 by Bozik and his professor and fellow veteran Alan Shebaro, a 4th degree black belt under Haueter and first jiu-jitsu black belt in the Special Forces Regiment. Through greater exposure via partnerships throughout the jiu-jitsu community, they hope to expand their reach to help as many veterans as possible. There continue to be challenges for the foundation, namely exposure and letting the greater public know exactly what they do and how they impact the lives of veterans.
Bozik clarifies: “The hard part about what we do is to quantify what we do. How to put a number on what we do that I can show someone and say ‘look, a veteran that trains jiu-jitsu gets 85.75 percent better.’ You just can’t do that. We struggle with that, but the reality of it is it does work. It helps.”
“The main goal is bridging the understanding of how jiu-jitsu helps these veterans,” he adds. “A lot of people who don’t train jiu-jitsu don’t understand the money they’re giving and how it’s helping these veterans. That’s the hardest part. We have a strong base, a strong community, and a lot of support in the jiu-jitsu community and the veteran community.”
Travis Larson, President of We Defy, is a survivor of a hemorrhagic stroke. Although not a combat disabled veteran, he is fully on board with the mission and provides critical budget and project management skills through extensive years working in software development and management. He speaks on the importance of community and team-building that are critical in rehabilitating wounded veterans, as well as having had a role in dealing with his own life-altering prognosis.
“We all suffer, and we all suffer trauma. Jiu-jitsu is a space where we can feel that togetherness, can fight isolation, and develop tools to cope with anxiety and depression. It’s a mental reset, it’s existing in the now. Jiu-jitsu gives that space. Veterans don’t need exclusively other veterans,” he says. “Traumatized sexual assault survivors don’t just need other survivors of trauma. They need to be welcomed by a supportive community of diverse individuals that care for them, that recognize that they’re human, that they’re not identified by the trauma they’ve gone through.”
The organization currently endorses ambassadors throughout the jiu-jitsu community in an effort to extend their reach.
T.J. Kreutzer is an Air Force Veteran and sits as the We Defy Foundation National Ambassador Coordinator. “Involvement in this highly diverse and supportive civilian community helps combat the alienation and loneliness veterans often experience after leaving service,” he says. “These factors significantly improve the quality of life of disabled combat veterans and can complement more traditional forms of therapy, leading to improved recovery outcomes, and they are uniquely present in the practice of jiu-jitsu. We understand how important it is to take care of our returning combat veterans and are committed to giving them tools to battle life’s new challenges.”
The We Defy Foundation is a registered 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization, having sponsored roughly 150 veterans since its inception in 2015. As Bozik states, results can be difficult to quantify. A recent study by the University of Florida’s Center of Aging and Brain Repair suggest that jiu-jitsu may have a measurable impact on reducing symptoms of PTSD, even improving the impact of traditional therapies in many cases. The physiological, cognitive, and social activation is often lacking in veterans that return from deployment.
“You get this learning tool of how to deal with life and life’s myriad of problems,” says Haueter. “It can really be a tool to help you with everything.”
This Veteran’s Day weekend, over 50 gyms across the nation will be holding open mats with the proceeds benefitting the foundation. Be on the lookout for any local gyms around you supporting We Defy, as well as feeling free to stop by one of their outreach booths at Grappling Industries events nationwide.
If you are a veteran returning from combat looking to start your jiu-jitsu journey, Click here.
Click here To learn more about We Defy Foundation and how you can get involved as a donor or an ambassador.
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