COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A roadside bomb destroyed much of Jason Pegg's left arm eight years ago in Afghanistan, leaving the retired Army sergeant with a thick scar that runs from his triceps to his wrist. Though years removed from combat, Pegg, 33, still suffers from occasional bouts of anxiety.
But at a mixed martial arts academy in Reynoldsburg, the Northwest Side man and other veterans take their battle scars to the mats, finding solace in the combat sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Four times a week, the 6-foot, 280-pound Pegg practices takedowns and arm locks, wrestling with men of all ages and sizes at the Ohio Combat Sports Academy. 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," he said. "Two hours a night where you're out and nothing else matters."
At a time of rising public awareness about mental-health issues in the military, nonconventional forms of treating trauma, including combat sports, are gaining more attention, said retired Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the chief clinical officer at the District of Columbia's Department of Mental Health.
"They don't like to go to a therapist and talk about what happened, and traditional methods focus on talking about what happened," she said. "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, jiu-jitsu provided a respite from the battles raging outside his base in Afghanistan. Ricca and other men in his squad, which included a collegiate wrestler from Wisconsin, would pull mattresses together and grapple 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.
Lately, he's focused on CrossFit, a popular strength and conditioning exercise program. Ricca recently opened his own gym, 12th Round CrossFit, just a few doors down from Ohio Combat Sports Academy.
The academy's owner, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Dustin Ware, estimates that about 10 of his 60 students are veterans. 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, he said.
A hand-grenade explosion in Afghanistan seven years ago left Zac Scott, a retired Army staff sergeant from Columbus, with bits of 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 on the mats.
"No one wants to hurt each other," he said. "It's a family."