By Kari Araujo
When Joey Bozik entered the Tier 1 Training Facility in McKinney, Texas three years ago, he started a journey with 200 other combat veterans across the United States and Puerto Rico. Bozik, a U.S. Army combat veteran, recipient of a purple heart and bronze star, and survivor of an IED explosion in the Iraq war, was now a triple amputee settling into civilian life.
At Tier 1, a Brazilian jiu jitsu school and physical training facility, Bozik would soon defy all odds and expectations with the help of Professor Alan Shebaro.
“If you have patience with me, I’ll have patience with you and we will figure this out together” Shebaro told Bozik in a private training session.
Bozik had been training in martial arts his entire life, even holding a first degree black belt in Okinawa Kenpo Kobudo, a discipline of Karate, but his life altering injuries had left him wheelchair bound. Bozik had tried to study jiu jitsu before, but in a discipline that relies heavily on the use of limbs and quick movements, many professors did not have the persistence or patience to teach a martial art to a triple amputee.
Professor Alan Shebaro a third degree black belt, is a combat veteran himself and was the first Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt serving in the U.S. Army Special Forces Regiment. In fact, this was not the first time Professor Shebaro was training a soldier, during his deployments to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he trained some of our nation’s elite operators including U.S. Army Special Forces, U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Navy Seals, U.S. Air Force Special Operations, Tactical Air Control Party, Combat Controllers and U.S. Marine Force Recon.
Professor Shebaro did not treat Bozik like he was any different than those soldiers were. Through patience, perseverance and creativity, Bozik began to advance from private training sessions to training on the mats with the rest of Tier 1 Training Facility’s students.
For someone who has never trained in Brazilian jiu jitsu, the most adequate way to describe it is the fast paced mental solving of physical equations. The athlete must memorize physical movements and think quickly and creatively to execute them at the correct time and situation. Jiu jitsu can often be more mental than physical, which allows unlikely athletes to thrive and become brilliant technicians of the sport.
Joey Bozik went from being bound to a wheelchair to losing 35 pounds and transforming into an active Brazilian jiu jitsu competitor. Beginning this journey had unquestionably changed the course of Bozik’s life, and though his journey was an extraordinary one, he and Professor Shebaro couldn’t help but think:
“What if we could do this for more people?”
This is how the We Defy Foundation was born. Co-founded by Joey Bozik and Professor Alan Shebaro, We Defy is a nonprofit organization that empowers combat veterans suffering from life altering injuries, and/ or PTSD with a long term approach to combat their challenges. We Defy provides 12-month scholarships and equipment to disabled combat veterans seeking to change their life through training in Brazilian jiu jitsu.
We Defy in the RGV
About 530 miles south of Tier 1 and We Defy headquarters, in Edinburg, is South Texas Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. SOTX BJJ was founded by valley native and Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt, Professor Victor Garza, a U.S. Marine combat veteran whose life was also completely altered and improved through his jiu jitsu journey.
Garza devoted 15 years of his life to the United States Marines and was battling PTSD when he left the service. In 2009, as a result of a bad divorce, Garza enrolled in a jiu jitsu class as a way to distract himself from the stress and pressures of the experience.
“The most difficult part about coping with civilian life after the military was finding purpose again,” Garza said. He quickly excelled in the sport and added these accomplishments into his daily life. Through jiu jitsu, Garza found the structure and discipline he was accustomed to in the military. He had found his purpose.
In the years following, he immersed himself in the sport. He climbed through the ranks and even traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to train intensively for three months before returning to the U.S. as a brown belt. He opened his own jiu jitsu school and taught the discipline that changed his own life.
SOTX BJJ is now one of three We Defy approved training facilities in the Rio Grande Valley. In addition to providing programs through We Defy, SOTX BJJ also opens its doors Monday through Friday for a free afternoon class for veterans of all branches and active duty service members. This is a worthy cause to Professor Garza who believes that the sport can truly change lives, especially for military veterans.
Why Jiu Jitsu?
Exactly why Brazilian jiu jitsu is so beneficial to veterans can be attributed to a number of factors. The most evident and noticeable are the physical health benefits that come from an exercise regimen as grueling as jiu jitsu. Jaramie, a veteran athlete sponsored by We Defy describes his post-military experience as difficult. After being medically discharged from the U.S. Army, he felt his life falling apart. At just 30 years old, he weighed 280 pounds and within one year of his first class, Jaramie was able to lose 80 pounds.
The camaraderie attained through the jiu jitsu community is incomparable to any other sport. Many veterans often compare the belt ranking structure in jiu jitsu to the ranking system in the military. For example, a white belt is basic training and graduating to a blue belt is comparable to when you become a PFC and so forth.
However, “It’s the things you don’t hear as often that are the most surprising and beneficial in Brazilian jiu jitsu” Shebaro said, as he describes the therapeutic power of human touch.
Social interaction, communication and physical contact are among our most primal human needs and the lack of such, studies have shown, often leads to psychiatric illnesses like depression. Veterans returning from war and settling into civilian life often encounter a loss of identity that leads them to isolation. Immersing oneself in jiu jitsu forces an individual into daily social interaction and the physicality of the sport answers to our primal need for human touch.
The We Defy foundation has received testimonials from veteran athletes who have stopped taking their anti-depression medication and have been able to finally sleep in peace since starting Brazilian jiu jitsu.
How To Help
“Before meeting Joey, I was spending a lot of time raising awareness on Mission 22 and though I believe that raising awareness is still important, we wanted to focus on finding a solution for this statistic,” Shebaro said, referring to the number of veterans who commit suicide due to PTSD every day.
Ranging 22 suicides per day is staggering, and though this number is mainly attributed to Vietnam War vets who averaged roughly around three deployments, Shebaro believes this number could eventually affect the young veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, many who have toured up to 12 deployments.
Providing these young veterans help and early intervention for their mental illnesses and disabilities is key.
“I can’t say that jiu jitsu is THE solution, but it is A solution,” Shebaro said.
The We Defy Foundation is currently sponsoring and changing the lives of 178 veteran athletes who are actively training in Brazilian jiu jitsu. There are 182 We Defy Foundation affiliates across the U.S. and Puerto Rico and a six month waiting list for their sponsorship program. The We Defy Foundation is completely nonprofit and currently accepts donations in the form of sponsorship packages available at wedefyfoundation.org.
If you are a veteran or active duty service member in the Rio Grande Valley, Professor Victor Garza and SOTX BJJ welcome you to visit their free Veteran’s afternoon classes starting at noon Monday through Friday. Call 760-717-3796 for more information.