When former U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant Alan Shebaro returned to Texas in 2010, he knew others wouldn’t understand. He’d finished serving three rotations in Iraq but knew plenty of others who had it worse. For starters, Shebaro still had all his limbs. He’d accomplished the goals he set for his military career, almost to a tee: a drill sergeant in peacetime and a Green Beret in wartime.

So how come he couldn’t get to sleep without a six-pack of beer, three Benadryl, two Ambien, about eight jumbo melatonins, and any Percocet he could find? How come when he rose in the morning, he needed a triple dose of Adderall to get through the day? How come he eventually found himself ready to blow a head gasket over the tiniest public slights? “I was about to literally get into a shootout with a couple of strangers,” Shebaro recalled in a 2021 interview. “And I’m not at war. I’m in McKinney, Texas. I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

He thought martial arts would ease the transition to civilian age. He’d practiced jiujitsu since 1996, and shortly after returning from his service in 2010, Shebaro opened his own gym, now called Combat Base Texas, in East McKinney, just north of Dallas. Shebaro planned to support himself by coaching others while training for his career in elite-level competitions like the World International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championship. But his struggles started to overwhelm him. Living in the gym to save money, he imagined the day when it would all collapse: two months out from full-blown bankruptcy, six months from being cast out of the jiujitsu community.

He tried to find relief through his work. He rose at four in the morning, trained at four-fifteen, and taught from six till half past noon. Then he might have a few hours off until three-thirty. His last students left around eight at night, and he’d go to sleep between one and two in the morning. Shebaro lived like that for years, barely staying afloat and self-medicating to sleep and get through the day. It took something greater than himself to pull himself out of his abyss.

About 76 percent of U.S. military veterans who served in Afghanistan say they sometimes “feel like a stranger in [their] own country.” In the first twenty years of this century, civilian life for the 1.9 million service members who were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq has become increasingly disconnected due to what the surgeon general has declared a loneliness epidemic and increasingly lethal because of a nationwide opioid epidemic. And Texas has more veterans than any other state.

Many veterans, newly divorced from their military purpose and its close tribal structure, feel alienated upon returning home. Suicide rates among veterans ages 18 to 34 approximately doubled from 2001 to 2021 and peaked in the last reported year. However, U.S. Global War on Terror veterans faced less combat and witnessed fewer fatalities as these wars stretched on: combat deaths declined steadily after 2007, and the number of deployed troops fell from hundreds of thousands to just thousands of troops. Yet from 2010 to 2020, the suicide rate for veterans in their first year after leaving the military has increased about 35 percent. And the crisis is even more serious in Texas, where the suicide rate for veterans between 18 and 34 years old outpaces that of both the southern region and the entire United States. These young Texas vets are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than civilian Texans. Our homecomings are increasingly fatal.

These statistics paint a grim picture of life for contemporary veterans who often find themselves coming home to an atmosphere of social disconnection. Thanks to political polarization and declining participation in civil society groups, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are likely experiencing the same societal trends as the rest of us in an increasingly distant America. These vets don’t just show us how hard it is to come back here; they remind us how hard it can be just to be here. And for a growing movement of veterans that includes Shebaro, jiujitsu has been key to rebuilding social connections and surviving the home front.

Shebaro, who is now 47, served fifteen years, operating as a mechanic, drill sergeant, and, after 9/11, as a Special Forces assaulter, breacher, and sniper. He was discharged in 2011, after working within an elite anti- and counterterrorism unit. As a Green Beret, he deployed across Baghdad and Tikrit, Iraq, and conducted covert operations in locations in he cannot name.

Immediately upon his return to civilian life, Shebaro opened Combat Base Texas. He cofounded the We Defy Foundation in 2015 to provide “combat veterans coping with military connected disabilities a long-term means to overcome their challenges through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and fitness training.” The group provides yearlong scholarships to disabled vets to train jiujitsu for free. Over the past nine years, We Defy has approved eight hundred training facilities, brought on 415 ambassadors, and awarded 1,200 scholarships.

Their scholarships encourage veterans to reengage in a close social system. Jiujitsu practice depends upon training partners, close physical contact, and shared hardship. Those qualities are familiar mainstays of military life, and We Defy aims to help veterans rekindle those bonds through the community that gyms can provide. Jiujitsu can foster a culture of consent and self-compassion: training partners must relinquish their chokeholds and joint locks after their counterparts submit, and everyone must experiment and fail often to improve. Competency in jiujitsu means learning how to reapproach problems and see them differently—exercising the same cognitive flexibility required for resilience and therapeutic healing.

Shebaro holds a fifth-degree black belt in jiujitsu and became the first active-duty Special Forces soldier to earn one. His martial practice evolved from Gracie jiujitsu, which was developed by the Gracie fighting dynasty in Brazil and first gained mainstream U.S. attention in the 1990s, when Gracie fighters dominated the early years of UFC-branded mixed martial arts competitions. Shebaro began jiujitsu after trying nearly all forms of martial arts he could find. It wasn’t until he was outmatched by a smaller jiujitsu opponent that he realized he wanted to learn the art. He started at the only jiujitsu gym in Texas back then, a facility in Dallas run by a former world champion from Brazil named Carlos Machado.

Nowadays as a jiujitsu instructor, Shebaro’s first principle is survival. Every class, he demands that all his students try to take each other down. He forbids “pulling guard”—a common tactic in tournament jiujitsu—which describes when competitors leap onto their backs and try to entangle their legs around their opponents to control posture. Be the guy on top—it’s a rule Shebaro borrowed from one of his teachers, Chris Haueter, who’s renowned in the sport for being one of the first twelve non-Brazilian martial artists to earn a black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu. At his gym, though, Shebaro trains students in a style that draws on multiple fighting traditions, including Brazilian jiujitsu, judo, Russian sambo, and Iranian wrestling. It’s a combat creole that some of Shebaro’s opponents have derided as “Franken-jitsu”—a term that he’s embraced as a compliment.

The initiated see jiujitsu as martial chess, but casual observers probably see the sport—and its grappling, chokeholds, joint locks, and takedowns—as pain codified. It’d be manslaughter if taken beyond its own rules and rituals. Jiujitsu is putting your life in somebody else’s hands. The martial art, in its proximity to death, teaches its participants that they can survive life; for its most die-hard adherents, it becomes a lifestyle.

East McKinney shows some signs of being swallowed up by North Dallas exurban sprawl, but it’s also still the kind of place where residents say “congratulations” after a neighborhood kid graduates college—not “what’s next?” Shebaro’s gym sits between small commercial strips and a cemetery to the west and McKinney’s small national airport to the east. Inside, plastic medals in precious metal tones hang in the foyer along with pictures of Shebaro, his students, and various reminders of his military service. An image of the 1963 Kennedy assassination—in remembrance of the president who authorized Special Forces to wear their Green Berets—hangs in a black frame. A flag for each service branch adorns the wall opposite the mats, perpendicular to an LGBTQ pride flag.

Almost the full alphabet soup of military special-operations acronyms—SEAL, MARSOC, TACP, CCT, SF, PJ—have passed through Combat Base Texas, but Shebaro’s students also reflect the broader community around McKinney: a home-schooled preteen who claimed the only books he needed were Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Leviticus; a lesbian artist who trained alongside her partner; and plenty of cops, middle-managers, pool cleaners, and all the rest. Once students step onto the mats, everyone faces a black wall, a blank slate meant to convey a message that Shebaro often shares with new arrivals: “You are your actions.”

I was a sadly comic kid when I met Shebaro in 2014. A litany of health concerns cast a pall over my late elementary and early middle school years. For starters, I suffered from abdominal migraines, a condition that typically affects children and causes a range of symptoms, including abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, and more. In my case, the migraines felt like an air-powered impact wrench was torquing my guts. At its worst, abdominal pain occupied most of my waking day and conspired with diarrhea and drenching cold sweats to drown me in distress.

I was also physically stunted from a toe-walking condition and the many medical interventions I underwent to correct it. Specialists struggled to identify what caused my toe-walking, but I couldn’t stand or walk flat-footed. The condition, if uncorrected, can go on to cause myriad other orthopedic problems: I broke my left foot a couple of times when I was in fifth grade and cracked more toes than I can remember.

Intensive efforts to treat my toe-walking began when I was ten, when I underwent three months of serial casting, a technique that required my legs to be covered in hard plaster casts from the tip of my toes to my knees. Each week, doctors would wrap me in a new pair of casts, with each new set meant to stretch the muscles in my lower legs a little more than the last, to try to increase my range of movement and improve my gait.

A couple of years later, I traveled to Houston for a cutting-edge surgical procedure aimed at lengthening my heel cord (a procedure typically performed on children with cerebral palsy). The surgeon perforated soft tissue on both of my legs, starting at my Achilles tendons and venturing all the way up to my hamstring on the left side. After the operation, the medical team put me back into plaster casts for three months while the fuzzy-feeling incisions along my legs healed. Then, well, I had to relearn how to walk.

At the peak of my peculiarities, sleep became a forgotten friend. At night, my legs were covered in plaster to my knees, and then from there to my hips in knee-straightening braces. I couldn’t lie down any other way but flat on my back and stiff as a board. When I was able to be in school, a speech impediment—I was a “wabbit” kid—along with my body-by-orthopedics made me catnip for Texas schoolboy bullies’ basest instincts. They mimicked my wobbles and mocked my words. I started stumbling toward hallway shadows and hiding from mirrors. I wanted to feel strong and maybe even safe. I found a path to inch toward that when I stepped inside Combat Base Texas at fourteen years old.

Shebaro told me that at my height—six feet—I was “a bit too big for the kids’ class.” Sure, but I also weighed 120 pounds at the time. Nevertheless, I robed up in a gi and entered an adult class, and that first day, Shebaro threw me so hard I thought I blacked out. He then told my training partner, “He’ll be fine. Throw him harder.” Those instructions sent me a powerful message: “You’re not different. You belong here.” A few weeks into training me, Shebaro showed me a picture of himself at 21 years old. He was six feet tall, 145 pounds, and folks used to call him Skeletor, he said. Yet his arm was raised; he had won a jiujitsu tournament.

In training, Shebaro peppered me with a care that could make me flinch. Sometimes, when I struggled to move my body in space, he’d kick off his anger on a heavy bag nearby. A year in, he began training me for free, privately in the mornings before school. I’d return later in the day for three evening hours. By then, the medical procedures to correct my toe-walking and years of subsequent rehab had been largely successful. I would occasionally still teeter around, but more of the time I was newly flat-footed and able to practice jiujitsu without limitations. Training helped me find comfort in movement and build strength in my fragile frame. It brought me closer to the body I wanted to live within. Back then, I wanted to become a Navy SEAL because I figured that if I could grow strong enough to join the SEALs, then I’d be able to overcome any pain my body could throw at me. Shebaro’s way of training me for a future in the military involved making “damn sure I knew why I wanted to join.” That required a trip or two to Texas Roadhouse, where Shebaro told me he first enlisted in 1995, when he was eighteen, because he saw “a f—ing movie” (the 1981 action classic Escape From New York, where Kurt Russell plays a renegade ex–Special Forces hero named Snake Plissken). He added: “I live with that decision every day.” 

Away from combat, Shebaro said he found “peace in the chaos of jiujitsu.” Only on the mats could he quiet his mind. There, the most challenging sessions were the most satisfying. “Frustration presents problems,” he said. “Problems present opportunities for solutions.” And different athletes—with their different body types, backgrounds, and limitations to overcome—presented ever more challenges and potential solutions.

Texas Veterans Finding Healing Through Jiu-Jitsu
Alan Shebaro. Courtesy of Alan Shebaro
Texas Veterans Finding Healing Through Jiu-Jitsu
Joey Bozik (center) training at Fort Bragg for deployment to Afghanistan in 2002. Courtesy of Joey Bozik

Joey Bozik jokes that his porn-star name would be Tripod. The retired Army sergeant who now lives in Prosper, just west of McKinney, lost three of his limbs when the vehicle he was riding in drove over an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2004. The explosion broke every major bone in his body. He spent more than a year in recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.—plenty of time to ruminate on how he didn’t want his injuries to define the rest of his life. His single mom had taught him not to feel self-pity, and he decided she’d raised him to be too damn stubborn to give up.

He was discharged from active duty in May 2005, and has relearned to drive, performing a modified one-arm pull-up on the steering wheel every time he gets into his truck. Since returning to civilian life, Bozik has had two children: a daughter and a son. In 2014, a decade after his injury, Bozik brought his daughter to enroll in jiujitsu classes at Combat Base Texas. Bozik and Shebaro connected over their shared military service, and after Bozik had been bringing his daughter by for about a month, Shebaro asked him if he wanted to train, too. “I’ll be patient with you,” he told Bozik, “if you’ll be patient with me.”

On Bozik’s first day, Shebaro asked him simple questions: “Can you move your hips? What’s your balance like? How hard can you grip? Can you bend your elbow?”

The answers made Shebaro a believer. “I can work with this,” he said. The two began training twice a day, Monday through Friday. Shebaro brought Bozik to the best gyms in the metroplex and introduced him to other black belts to further his instruction. “Shebaro’s among the most giving people I’ve ever met,” Bozik said.

After a few months of training, Bozik wanted to know if the techniques he’d learned would work at full speed, unshielded from the safety of private sessions. He wanted to face full-bodied foes, so he joined the rest of us in Shebaro’s adult classes. Before his first group session, everyone was “pleasant and shaking hands,” Bozik said. Once they hit the mats together, though, the others began choking and wrenching him, submitting him every fifteen or thirty seconds, he recalled with a grin. To this day, nothing gets under his skin more than a jiujitsu partner who tries to go easy on him, or a bystander who sees him and says, “I’m sorry.” 

It wasn’t long before Bozik started competing in open jiujitsu tournaments. People crowded around him for his first match, held in Houston. “They had no idea what the fuck I was there for,” he said. Maybe they thought he was “just there.” Perhaps he was a “charity case.” Maybe they thought, “Congratulations to the blown-up veteran trying his best.” 

But Bozik’s goal was clear: “I’m here to compete. If we slap hands and it’s time, I’m here to kill you.” He lost his single-elimination match by points but managed to drag his opponent to the ground during the grappling contest. He and Shebaro were “breaking down barriers they didn’t even know existed,” he said. Bozik had never heard of anybody like himself competing in jiujitsu.

He kept fighting. After about three years of training, he’d entered seven tournaments, and although he’d yet to score his first win, no opponent had finished him. To improve his performance on the mats, Bozik sought another surgery, this one to shorten one of his remaining limbs. Years earlier, when military surgeons had amputated both of Bozik’s legs and his right arm, what remained of his left leg was about a foot longer than his right, which was removed just below the hip. In jiujitsu, Bozik’s asymmetrical lower body affected his balance and his ability to maneuver on the mats, so he had twelve inches removed from his left side to even out his base.  

Finally, Bozik’s breakthrough came at an Austin jiujitsu tournament in 2017, where he was competing as a blue belt against more experienced competitors. As his first match wound down, he found himself behind on points and headed toward another defeat. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t gain a decisive advantage. Then, with a few seconds remaining in the five-minute bout, he reversed his opponent from a turtled position, shouldering him like a fireman before dumping his foe on the mat. Bozik landed past his opponent’s legs and began smothering his side. He noticed that the man’s fingers and wrist were taped and vulnerable. 

Bozik draped his left arm around his opponent’s head and buried the man’s face in his armpit. He had isolated his arm, and Bozik’s right stub now backstopped it. He torqued the man’s wrist and left his opponent with no choice but to tap or let Bozik take his hand home with him. Bozik won by submission just before time ran out.

Training with Bozik helped Shebaro channel a passion for martial arts into a much greater cause. They felt how jiujitsu had helped stitch and scar their own wounds—visible or otherwise—and they knew these wounds cut across the veteran community. Shebaro and Bozik started sketching out the plans for what would become the We Defy Foundation, and in 2015 they became co-founders of the nonprofit.

The group held one of its first major events the following year, when it hosted more than two hundred attendees for two days of jiujitsu instruction at McKinney’s Faubion Middle School. After a long day of training, the crowd settled into the bleachers, and a lineup of veterans began to speak. Shebaro took center stage. “I’ve been asked if I regret anything I’ve done,” he said through a clenched jaw. “But I only regret the things I could not do.” He told the story of a young Iraqi girl he’d encountered during his military service. “She was probably seven or eight,” Shebaro said. “She ran to me and held my hand. We questioned her father and returned her to her mother, but she ran back to me.”

He paused.

“I couldn’t understand why she ran to me. There were bigger men, closer men, more friendly and approachable men, too.” His fists whitened, and he took a moment to look away from the bleachers before he resumed speaking.

“She was killed a few days later. And I couldn’t save her.”

Jiujitsu isn’t usually thought of as therapy. But for Bozik and Shebaro, grappling was just that. They spun their struggles into a larger—sometimes life-saving—community that took hold with fellow veterans and allowed them to help each other heal on the mats.

Former Marine and black belt Joey Zente launched Veterans Jiu-Jitsu about a year before We Defy. Zente started training veterans and first responders at the VFW Post 8787 in North Austin. They’d piece together thin puzzle wrestling mats atop the concrete floors and roll for a couple of hours. Over time, Zente coordinated with other gyms in Austin to host regular free jiujitsu classes for veterans.

At the beginning of one of Zente’s sessions, a group of kimono-clad men embraced at the edge of the mats before moving to the center and forming what they called a “warriors’ circle.” “There aren’t any strangers here,” Zente said. This was a place where they all belonged. His sincerity helped set the tone that others would follow when it was their turn to share. On this day, he told everyone he’d recently been “in his head.” It’d been a “rough past couple months,” and his family had to spring for an unplanned $8,000 plumbing bill. Then he looked straight ahead and said: “Living isn’t cheap.”

Many of the veterans were circumspect during the pretraining circle. Shoulders sagged, stares reached through the distance, and words were held tight. But everyone was acknowledged, even if they chose only to nod; say plenty by saying, “it’s been a week”; or just tap the knee of whoever sat next to them. After Zente’s plumbing riff, one vet mentioned that he’d just had to spend $10,000 on his house. These friends and fighters shared an intimacy hidden to the world outside of the gyms where they were about to practice chokeholds and joint locks that could send any of them to the emergency room, if applied recklessly.

Once sparring began, the veterans’ stress—whether it be the type that’s caused by home repair costs or the type that comes in the traumatic aftermath of combat service—receded and their bodies seized control. Practitioners throttled their speed and savagery to match that of their training partners. They’d read each other’s energy, shifting pressure and advancing positions. Jiujitsu can look unusually touchy to outsiders. For some of the folks in that class, it might have been the only intimacy in their lives. The sport codifies consent, trusting combatants with the choice to tap out and be released at any time.

As the veterans grappled, their muscles tensed, their sweat poured, their breath shortened, and their hearts raced. In some cases, they were learning to trust these sensations again, after combat had encoded the feelings with trauma. They trained together at the precipice of broken legs and snapped wrists, trusting that their partners would keep them safe and in one piece, and that they’d be embraced with hugs and handshakes when it was over.

Perhaps that’s what made the post-training warriors’ circle livelier. “You know, I get a lot of thanks, and I appreciate the gratitude, I really do,” Zente said after a workout. “But I have to tell you—I’m selfish, too. I need this. And I need y’all here. This is for me.” The vets went around the circle, sharing whatever felt right. One chimed in: “I always leave here better than when I came in.” 

Texas Veterans Finding Healing Through Jiu-Jitsu
Alan Shebaro and Joey Bozik at Combat Base in McKinney.Courtesy of Alan Shebaro

The We Defy Foundation has continued to grow in recent years. The Department of Veterans Affairs authorized a grant worth $250,000 to help fund veteran athletes and regional VA clinics partnered with We Defy to provide more options for veterans to train jiujitsu. We Defy inspired the formation of sister organizations in Australia and the United Kingdom, the latter represented by actor Tom Hardy (who played a battle-scarred veteran in the 2011 mixed martial arts film Warrior). While the nonprofit he founded thrived, Shebaro’s actual livelihood—the McKinney jiujitsu gym that’s been his home base for more than a decade—has fallen on hard times. In 2020, he nearly lost the space and took on crippling personal debt to keep it open, he said. Rent at the gym had more than doubled, while COVID restrictions had reduced the membership by 70 percent. Through it all, he said he continued paying his instructors full wages and worked construction full time to survive. “Sometimes that’s what it takes,” he explained with a shrug.

In recent weeks, he’s also become a prominent ex-military voice calling for a cease-fire in Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the rent at his gym has continued to rise. Eventually, Shebaro told me, he expects he’ll need to shutter Combat Base Texas. But his work on behalf of veterans continues, and this spring he’s planning to embark on a yearlong, cross-country journey, where he’ll stop at jiujitsu gyms from coast to coast to train with fellow vets, listen to their stories, and share his own. He’s never taken a great American road trip, he told me, and this will be his.

As he makes his way from North Texas to California and then doubles back east, Shebaro told me he has only three rules for himself: “Have fun, be honest, and be happy.” Then he paused—it’s more like two rules, he said: “Have fun and be honest.” Happiness is his work in progress.

Dayton Thompson is a native of Fairview, Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and can be reached at dtthompsonwrite[at]gmail[dot com].