By Daniel Rosenbaum
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Published December 18, 2005
Lt. Col. Joseph C. Shusko tempers his fighting instruction with character-building lessons as he forges a new breed of warrior at the Marine Corps Martial Arts Center of Excellence here.
The 49-year-old native of Long Branch, N.J. -- known as "Cyborg" -- demonstrates the effectiveness of the Corps' new fighting style as he throws a trainee to the grass, climbs over him and clamps a chokehold during a drill.
Three seconds pass. Four seconds. Five.
The black-belt trainee -- a staff sergeant 14 years Cyborg's junior -- struggles, pulls, scrapes. His face turns red, then purple.
He sputters and spits and finally taps his opponent's arm. The hold is released. The trainee coughs and sucks in a deep breath.
He and Cyborg smile and shake hands.
Then it's someone else's turn.
If Col. Shusko has his way, every Marine -- and everyone near them -- will benefit from the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP). Unlike men and women in the other branches of the armed forces, every Marine is taught how to fight hand-to-hand, up close and personal.
"Every Marine is a rifleman. Every Marine is a martial artist," Col. Shusko says.
For the first time in the U.S. military, an effort has been made to combine the most effective techniques of martial-arts disciplines from around the world into a single course of study -- MCMAP.
Among the fighting styles appropriated for MCMAP, Col. Shusko demonstrates the grappling techniques of Brazilian jujitsu, which mostly consists of ground-fighting submission holds and joint locks that he likes to call "wristy twisties."
These techniques are designed to control the enemy, to break bones and, if necessary, to kill.
Col. Shusko also teaches throwing techniques according to the Japanese art of judo and kicking skills from the Korean style of self-defense known as tae kwon do.
In addition, Thai boxing -- with its emphasis on elbow and knee strikes to inflict damage -- figures into the MCMAP curriculum.
"We did not invent anything," Col. Shusko says, "Just took the best and put it into our program."
Since lethal force is not always needed in defensive situations, the colonel schools his trainees in techniques similar to those used by U.S. police officers to make arrests or subdue suspects.
But MCMAP training involves more than merely learning how to fight. It's about learning how to be a modern-day warrior -- tough, confident and able without the ego-gratifying need to prove it.
It's about entering a bar and knowing you can handle any situation that may occur, not sizing up the competition and picking a fight, Col. Shusko says.
He and his staff recently trained a seasoned group of Marines aiming to become black-belt instructors. The instructors' course is one of the most grueling regimens in the military, and this class, which started with 34 trainees, has been reduced to 28.
Seven grueling weeks
For seven weeks, beginning at 6:30 every morning, they are put through their paces on obstacle courses and forced marches, in the swimming pool and in the classroom, on wrestling mats and in trenches.
Trainees must employ teamwork to help each other through the grueling course work -- sometimes carrying, pushing and pulling each other -- to make sure no one is left behind. Together, they often tote a 10-foot-long, 400-pound tree trunk on their shoulders throughout their training.
In classroom instruction, they learn about risk management, decision making, tactics and Marine Corps history.
Lugging 60-pound packs on their backs, they negotiate an obstacle course by climbing up 20-foot ropes and fording muddy ditches. Confidence and endurance come through tackling the 100-yard-long course five times without rest.
Through adversity, his students build character, Col. Shusko says, and MCMAP takes them to the point where their bodies do not have time to recover and heal before they are up and at it again.
"We push them just past their limit," says Staff Sgt. Richard Torrez, a MCMAP staffer, "and then that maximum becomes their minimum."
"We like it tough," Col. John W. Ripley, who has been on active duty for 35 years, explains to a group of MCMAP students training in the woods. "Mother's milk, value of mental and physical toughness.
"I've been starving, sleep deprived, biting cold, and began to love it," he says. "This attitude will serve you: I may not be the smartest, fastest or biggest, but I'm the toughest."
'One Mind, Any Weapon'
Gen. James L. Jones perceived a problem with Marines' fighting image when he became Marine Corps commandant in 1999.
As a young officer during the Vietnam War, he had heard that the North Vietnamese were more fearful of the Republic of Korea's marines than they were of his U.S. Marines.
A rumor had spread among the communists that all Korean marines knew tae kwon do.
Gen. Jones decided that the Marine Corps would develop its own martial-arts program, in part so that the enemy would know that American Marines are as adept at fighting with their hands and feet as they are with rifles and mortars.
In 1999, he turned to the director of the Marine Corps' training and education division -- Major Gen. Thomas S. Jones (no relation) -- to start a fighting school.
"I thought he was flippin' crazy," the latter Gen. Jones said during a MCMAP graduation ceremony in late October. "With all the things going on in the Marines, why do we need a martial-arts program?"
But in creating the MCMAP curriculum, Gen. Jones quickly realized its value. And as the commanding general of the Training and Education Command, he impresses that value on all who take the course.
"Shame on any of you here if all you care about is the belt you wear," he told the graduating class of black-belt students.
More than belts
"It's not about the belt. It's not about the physical training. We got enough tough guys and gals in the Marine Corps to sustain that.
"What we need to do is put the physical skills together with the mental skills and emotional skills and character development."
Ever since Vietnam, the Pentagon has sought to enhance the image of its enlisted personnel, as perceived inside and outside the military.
Although they lead the world's best-equipped fighting force, senior U.S. commanders have wanted to ensure that underneath the Kevlar and microchips beats the heart of a fighter who can prevail with little more than bare hands.
"I want the Marines who take this course and then return to duty feeling, 'Now people are safer because I'm here,' " Col. Shusko says.
The motto "One Mind, Any Weapon" is emblazoned on the T-shirt of every instructor at MCMAP, which teaches 184 fighting techniques and more than 60 character-building lessons.
Like traditional martial-arts disciplines, MCMAP uses a belt-ranking system: tan, gray, green, brown and black.
Every Marine is required to become a tan belt, and the highest rank is the sixth-degree black belt.
The Corps currently has more than 217,000 active and reserve Marines serving today, and there are 10,000 green-belt instructors, who are qualified to teach and test tan- and gray-belt students.
About 1,300 black-belt instructors are capable of testing students up to black belt.
Col. Shusko, MCMAP's director since 2003, believes his is the largest martial-arts school in the world, with more than 150,000 students across the range of tan through black belts. He personally has seen about 11,000 Marines go though MCMAP training.
Those who graduate then share their expertise with comrades at bases and camps from South Carolina to Okinawa to Djibouti.
Other branches of the armed services recognize what Col. Shusko's school has to offer: The Navy already offers Marine Corps martial-arts classes to midshipmen.
MCMAP training can be as hard on the instructors as it is on the trainees. Col. Shusko makes sure it's that way.
He leads by example, always wearing his camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vest while training or sitting behind his desk -- just to make his body work harder because of the added weight.
When he takes off the 16-pound vest, he feels like a slugger at the plate after swinging three bats in the on-deck circle.
His buddies nicknamed him Cyborg after the nearly indestructible robot portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator." He's not as big as Arnold, but is just as chiseled.
And Cyborg never asks a trainee to do something he would not do himself.
"If they run the obstacle course five times, I'll run it 12 to 16 times," the graying Marine says. "If you want to work with Marines, you have to do what they do. It motivates them to see the old guy doing it."
As the thump of heavy bass blares from a weight-room stereo, the MCMAP wrestling class in the gym lasts hours.
The mat is shiny and slippery with sweat as the trainees grapple each other on a muggy afternoon.
Half of them are called off the mat to the sauna. Packed together like sardines, they sit in the heat in their thick fatigues until each of them, one at a time, has lifted a 45-pound weight overhead 20 times.
No complaints, then back to the gym for more wrestling as the other half of the class hits the sauna.
Sgt. Torrez nonchalantly rolls a trash can to the edge of the mat. "Puking is fine," he says, "just do it here."
The can goes unused.
Extreme but essential
Out on an obstacle course, a 230-pound trainee has burned his palms sliding down a slippery climbing rope. But he must complete a second climb before he or any of his fellow students can continue on the course.
One trainee braces himself against a support column; another braces himself against the first; a third climbs on top. One by one, the trainees create a human pyramid that allows the large Marine to clamber up and slap the top beam.
MCMAP training is extreme but not unnecessary, staffers and students say. The rigors and realities of being a Marine, especially during war, make valuable assets of preparedness and endurance.
Currently, about 23,000 Marines are on active duty in Iraq.
"Serving in Iraq is mentally, physically and emotionally taxing," says Capt. Jason T. Ford, 28, who served in Iraq from February through October last year. "It does a number on your head, an altered state of reality, an adrenaline spike every day. It's life or death."
A member of the MCMAP staff, Capt. Ford attributes his training for giving him the physical and mental stamina to maintain a grueling pace while patrolling the streets of Fallujah for 12 hours a day and then returning to his camp to write reports all night.
WWII vets awed
Veterans of past wars appreciate the training MCMAP provides.
"We [trained] hand-to-hand, the knife, holds and so forth, but MCMAP far surpasses our training during World War II," Ralph G. Phipps tells a group of trainees he's visiting.
The 80-year-old Marine regales them with his war stories, telling how he enlisted at age 16, landed on Okinawa in 1945, fought for more than 80 consecutive days, and fell wounded two days before the U.S. troops secured the island.
Dressed in his old uniform, Mr. Phipps spreads out his well-maintained combat gear on a table at the head of the class. He scrapes the edge of a shovel to show how he kept it sharp.
"You can read a book all day, but there are things that happen to a person in war that are not in the manuals," he says. "There was shooting, yelling and a lot of confusion, and a Japanese soldier knocked me down and stepped on my chest. I grabbed his ankle and he fell down. I happened to grab my entrenching tool and put his lights out."
Another World War II veteran, Cotton Billingsley, compares the training he received with MCMAP, saying it's "almost like getting into an automobile from the 1940s compared to one built today."
In the 'pit'
Col. Shusko has seen his share of combat operations in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Beirut and Sarajevo,Bosnia, and his experiences inform his instruction.
On a chilly and damp October day, he sends the trainees out on a forced march -- six hours of trudging over a cold-hardened landscape, wading through dank water and crawling through thick mud.
Shivering in their water-laden fatigues, they arrive at their destination.
The colonel tells them they must go back to the start, retrieve two buddies as though they had been severely wounded, and carry them back across the entire distance they have just covered.
Near the end of their training, he exhausts the would-be black-belt instructors on a forced march and several circuits on the obstacle course, only to prepare them for the "bear pit" -- a large, flooded trench where they must fight each other to prove their new skills.
The rules: Dunk your opponent or remove him from the water. The trainees fight one-on-one, two-on-two -- up to five-on-five.
Cold water splashes and mud flies as they wrestle, kick and throw each other around the pit.
The 230-pound Marine bulldozes his way into the task, dunking or tossing out several combatants.
But even he is bested, and the last one standing is 2nd Lt. Tien Tran, who stands a good head and shoulders shorter than the "bulldozer."
The class nicknames him "the little Tran that could."
But it's not over yet.
Col. Shusko's staff challenges the students to take on anyone who has rivaled them throughout the semester, a tradition known as "calling out" your opponent.
Cold, wet and exhausted, the trainees leap back into the pit to wrestle with their nemeses. They must be aggressive, but cannot lose control. They must follow orders, but also must fight to win.
"It helps keep a level head," says Capt. Nic Wisecarver, 27, a MCMAP trainee from Reno, Nev. "It hones skills. Based on an enemy's action, you control your counteraction, and the transition from control to deadly force."
The standout student of the class, Capt. Wisecarver arrived at Quantico for MCMAP already a veteran of Afghanistan and a two-time national boxing champion at the U.S. Naval Academy. He will deploy to Iraq in mid-February.