Hand to hand combat is an important part of training for every service member, but that doesn’t mean that every service member knows how to fight.  In the Marine Corps, every recruit must earn their tan belt (the equivalent of a white belt) in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program before graduating from recruit training.  From there, how high you climb in the belt rank structure is based on your job, your unit’s training schedule, and how fervently you’re willing to pursue getting punched in the face.  I can’t claim to be good at a lot of things, but I’ve always been good at getting punched in the face.

By the time I had achieved a brown belt in MCMAP, I had begun training as a part of Fight Club 29.  Under the incredible coaching of Sergeant Major Mark Geletko, a group of us would meet in a steel hanger under the beating Twentynine Palms, California sun and proceed to spend our chow times, evenings, and weekends conditioning, training, and beating on one another.  On the wall, Coach Geletko had painted the words, “Today I do what no one else will, so tomorrow I may do what no one else can.”  This statement permeated throughout his training methodology.  He worked you hard, pushing Marines further than even they thought they could go, and rewarded your efforts with a sincere respect and a sense of comradery.

During my time under coach Geletko, I competed at a civilian tournament, winning both of my bouts despite fighting a weight class up due to a poor turnout in the class I’d cut weight to compete in.  Soon thereafter I received change of station orders.  I hung up my gloves and walked away from the world of competitive martial arts in pursuit of new challenges in a new duty station, but a part of me always missed the time I spent training for what, in my mind, is the purest form of physical competition.

Throughout the next few years, I would earn my black belt, but also undergo a series of surgeries that would ultimately culminate in my separation from the Marine Corps.  Nursing my wounds and my ego, I enrolled as a full-time student at Framingham State University in Massachusetts and took what I thought was my rightful place on the elliptical machine at my local gym next to a pleasant older woman named Gladys.  She and I would watch Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan interview celebrities on the TV mounted on the wall in front of us and through my sweat, I’d lament internally about a time when training hurt because it was supposed to, not just because my body had given up.

A few years later, at the ripe “old” age of thirty-one, I had begun to think of fitness as a part of my life I’d left behind.  I still worked out, but all I really did was a few beach muscle lifts a day so I could maintain my position as a “fitness guy” on my Instagram account.  Bad knees, slipped discs, and concerns about aggravating old injuries kept me from doing the things that once defined me.  As a veteran, I prided myself on my days as a warrior, even if I was sure that they were all behind me.

One fateful night, my best friend from high school reached out to me on Facebook.  We exchanged the usual pleasantries as we caught up on what was going on in his life and mine.  He had fractured a bone in his neck playing rugby a year or two prior and his inability to compete since had left him depressed.  He asked how I handled leaving rugby, football and fighting behind, and what I did to keep it from bringing me down.

I thought long and hard about what I could say to him that would help, but nothing came.  Finally, I admitted that I didn’t have any secrets to post-competition happiness.  I was miserable too.  After a few minutes of commiserating, we each agreed that we would go find something.  In his eyes, he was a competitor in need of a sport.  In my eyes, I was a warrior in need of a fight.  We were both right.

A few days after we had that conversation, I reached out to a man named Anthony Penaloza.  Anthony ran the North Georgia Academy of Martial Arts and was a Navy Corpsman assigned to the Fleet Marine Force while enlisted.  Like me, he had been separated from the military due to injury, but unlike me, he never let that stop him.  Penaloza holds advanced black belts in four distinct forms of martial arts and transitions between styles and accompanying languages as casually and fluidly as I might talk about television shows.  I was immediately impressed by the way he carried himself, and asked if he’d be willing to take me on as a student.