Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Army Veteran Uses Martial Arts for Mental Health Healing

About eight years ago in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb damaged most of retired Army Sergeant Jason Pegg's left arm. He was left with a thick scar that starts at his triceps and end at his wrist. Though it has been year since his last combat mission, Pegg, 33, still suffers from intermittent spells of anxiety.

But Pegg find’s peace at a martial arts school in Reynoldsburg. He and other veterans take their battle scars to the mats.

Four times a week, the 6-foot, 280-pound Pegg practices his martial art techniques with men of all ages and sizes. The sport's physical aspect helps him blow off steam while offering a sense of camaraderie similar to what he experienced in the army, Pegg said.

"It gets your mind off life," Pegg said. "Two hours a night where you're out and nothing else matters."

Mental-health issues in the military are gaining more attention in the public eye, and nonconventional forms of treating trauma, including martial arts, are acquiring more awareness.

"They don't like to go to a therapist and talk about what happened, and traditional methods focus on talking about what happened," said retired Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the chief clinical officer at the District of Columbia's Department of Mental Health. "For some young men, some of these alternative methods are a very good way to go."

The Veterans Administration's Chalmers P. Wylie Ambulatory Care Center in Columbus recently began offering programs combining meditation, yoga and tai-chi, said Dr. Kathy Cable, a recreational therapist at the hospital.

The center also works with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department to offer adaptive sports programs for injured veterans, an initiative gaining steam across the country, she said.

For Army Reserve Capt. Paul Ricca, martial arts provided a break from the battles raging outside his base in Afghanistan. Ricca and his squad members would spar during their downtime.

"Having something to take your mind off what you're dealing with, like jiu-jitsu, like anything intensely physical, it allows you to escape that moment," said Ricca, who's been participating in the sport for 10 years.

For people with injuries such as Pegg's, who spent a year and a half recovering at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, the sport's slower pace and focus on technique can serve as a platform to return to athletics.

Seven years ago a hand-grenade explosion in Afghanistan left Zac Scott, a retired Army staff sergeant from Columbus, with shrapnel lodged in his face and legs, as well as nightmares in which he'd relive the attack. But like Pegg, Scott has found relief and support in martial arts.

"No one wants to hurt each other," he said. "It's a family."

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