Sgt. Jonathan Owens, right, struggles with an opponent during Combatives training at Grafenwoehr's 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy. The Army is revamping its hand-to-hand combat training to better prepare soldiers for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sgt. Jonathan Owens, right, struggles with an opponent during Combatives training at Grafenwoehr's 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy. The Army is revamping its hand-to-hand combat training to better prepare soldiers for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. (Seth Robson / S&S)

A U.S. Forces Combatives Tournament will be held Thursday through Sunday in Bamberg, Germany. For more information, click here.

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Confronted by a recent survey that shows soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq are fighting for their lives in hand-to-hand combat with insurgents, U.S. Army officials are revamping their basic combatives training to better equip American forces to defend themselves.

According to the Army’s Combatives Level I handbook, surveys of hundreds of soldiers who have engaged in hand-to-hand combat during the two wars show that every encounter has involved striking and grappling: core elements of the Army Combatives program.

“Around 30 percent of the fights have ended with gun shots,” the handbook states. “Fighting in an environment where everyone is armed means that very frequently the fight is over who controls the weapons.”

Details of the new instruction have yet to be disseminated by the U.S. Army Combatives School at Fort Benning, Ga., but they are expected by the end of the month, said Staff Sgt. Michael Lopez, 36, of San Antonio, a Level III Combatives instructor at the 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy in Grafenwöhr.

More than 50,000 soldiers have completed the Army Combatives Level I course since its inception in 2002, according to an Army release. The training is divided into four levels.

Until now, Level I and II Combatives training focused on ground fighting. But the new Level I and II training will include punching, kicking and grappling by soldiers in “full battle rattle,” Lopez said.

“They’re trying to incorporate more stand-up, more full-gear fighting in Level I and Level II,” he said. “Weapons fighting is becoming more important [in the early stages of Combatives training].”

The changes in the program came about after the Army interviewed more than 900 soldiers who saw hand-to-hand combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to an Army news release.

Soldiers most often enter small houses and rooms during combat operations, so the Army wants to take the ground-grappling principles taught in Combatives and emphasize them from a standing position, Matt Larsen, director of the Army Combatives School at Fort Benning, said in the release.

Additionally, thousands of insurgents or suspected insurgents have been detained in Iraq or Afghanistan by soldiers who must often resort to physical force at close quarters.

Hand-to-hand combat is more important now than it was a few years ago, Lopez said.

“Soldiers are going out there to capture high-value targets,” he said. “Any time you have to go through a search of a house and there are multiple occupants and somebody becomes noncompliant, you have to use nonlethal means to subdue them.”

Many of the soldiers at a recent Level I Combatives class in Grafenwöhr had grappled with insurgents in Iraq.

Spc. Mark Jackson, 23, of the 172nd Infantry Brigade, recalled an incident in which he chased an insurgent through the streets of Mosul, Iraq.

“He took off around a corner and ran into a building,” the Marion, Ind., native said. “Me and my squad leader ran in after him, tackled him and applied various chokes just to hold him down until we could restrain him with zip ties.”

Jackson said he didn’t have Combatives training back then, but he did practice boxing and kick boxing at school.

“I’d feel a lot more comfortable being in close quarters now (after completing the Level I training),” he said.

First Lt. Kathrin Mohr, 23, of Tampa, Fla., said she’d never been in a fight or been hit until she attended a “clinch drill” on the last day of the Level I course in Grafenwöhr.

Mohr, who is preparing to deploy with the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment to southern Afghanistan this summer, was the only female among the 20 some soldiers who attempted clinch holds against four “strikers” from the Level II class at the NCO Academy.

Surrounded by cheering classmates as she stepped into the center of a padded gym, she rushed forward as a striker in boxing gloves pummeled her about the face and body. After several minutes of pain, she finally got her opponent in a clinch, receiving a thumbs up from Lopez and applause from the audience.

“I was nervous about getting hit,” she said afterward. “I didn’t know how much it was going to hurt. I got a good punch the first time in, and it was game on from there.”

Lopez said the change in focus of the Combatives program is also a reflection of the directive from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to reduce the use of lethal force in Afghanistan.

“They want soldiers to be more cognizant of how and where to deploy their weapons systems,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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