For American soldiers, the fight continues from the battlefield to the hospital.
As professional fighters, Frankie Edgar and Eddie Alvarez have seen some amazing things.
While training every day and getting punched in the face fora living is hard, the life definitely has its perks. From sponsorship deals, travel, and television appearances, to after-parties and having their images in video games and on t-shirts, simply doing what they love to do has become more than a livelihood. They are part of a cultural phenomenon, and these fighters are on top of the world.
So, it was no surprise that after visiting Walter Reed Army Hospital just outside of Washington, DC, that these guys would be jolted back down to reality.
On the Wednesday before Veteran’s Day, Edgar and Alvarez boarded a private plane at Miller Airfield in Beachwood, NJ, with a UFC Countdown crew and this reporter in tow, for a hop down to Dulles Airport, where a Humvee limousine was waiting to chauffer these VIPs for an appearance that would be so much more than your typical autograph signing.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” says Alvarez, the Bellator Lightweight Champion. “But I knew it would be inspiring.”
Outside of the hospital, the fighters were greeted by Sgt. Major Craig, a gruff but congenial Army man whose unit leads level-one combatives training exercises for soldiers.
“We go through a rigorous one-week course, covering all the fundamentals of hand-to-hand combat,” says Craig. “We do throwing drills, choke-out drills, and all the things we need to know about hand-to-hand combat. We look up to you guys in MMA.”
And then he says something that gives Edgar and Alvarez—who are now joined by professional boxer and fellow MMA fighter Gregor Gracie—a hint at what they’re about to see inside.
“We’re putting together a tournament that will pit amputee against amputee, guys with the same kinds of injuries,” he says. “It’s never been done before in the military.”
While Walter Reed resembles any other hospital, with wards consisting of typical hospital rooms and doctors and nurses going about their business, the patients here are combat veterans, many of who suffer from traumatic brain injuries or who have lost limbs.
“One thing I’ve noticed in all my visits here is these guys don’t want pity,” says Rod McKinley, the former Master Chief of the Air Force. “These guys are here for training. They’re learning how to walk again or how to use their prosthetics. They want to get back to being productive in society, and many of them want to get back to their units.”
In fact, since Walter Reed Army Hospital opened its state-of-the-art rehab center in September 2007, more than 1100 amputees have been processed through, and 240 of those men and women are back on active duty, with 40 in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Inside, Frankie Edgar is greeted by 25-year-old former amateur cage fighter K.C. Mitchell. “Man, you’re intense,” he says to Frankie. K.C. lost his left leg after an IED exploded in Afghanistan. His right leg is intact, but is “pretty messed up,” he says. He’s so excited to meet Frankie, however, that he rushes through the story of his injuries, so he can get back to talking about the last BJ Penn bout.
K.C.’s 23-year-old wife Mallorie and 9-month-old daughter Skyree are close by.
“His goal was to beat his daughter to walking,” says Mallorie. “And he did.” Mallorie says she is inspired by what her husband has accomplished. “He just got his prosthetic this week, so he’s going to get better and better now.”
Inside the main rehab center, most of the men are accompanied by their young wives, watching as their husbands go through the rigorous exercises needed to learn to walk again. It’s a team effort, and one can see that the wives and children of these wounded warriors are as much affected as the soldiers are by the turn of events that have led them to where they are today.
“We feed off each other,” says Dustina Masson, whose husband John, a medic in the Special Forces, has lost both his legs and his left arm. “If he sees me down, he’s going to get down, so I do my best to stay positive. I’ve met other wives here, and I’ve already had some over to our home at Fort Bragg. We share a bond because we’re all going through the same thing.”
Dustina says John, who has only been at Walter Reed for two weeks and is out of his room in his wheelchair for the first time today, is in a very positive mood after visiting the rehab center earlier.
“He saw a soldier with exactly the same injuries as he has,” she says. “He was walking, so John is really upbeat right now. We’re doing okay.”
Downstairs there’s a mat room where two guys grapple BJJ under the watchful eye of a local instructor who hails from Brazil. Each practitioner has only one leg.
“I used to be able to lock in a triangle choke really tight,” says Eric Moriarty. “But I don’t have a knee anymore, so now I focus on armbars.”
“We train to fight and to get in shape,” says Edgar. “But these guys are training just to get back to life. It’s like a cleansing of the soul for me. I am definitely coming out of here a different person.”
Rashad Evans, who after a flight delay, was unable to join the fighters at the hospital, meets up with us later at the airport. He’s been to visit before, however.
“The troops are the foundation of our country,” he says. “Without the troops, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the simple liberties that we have. These are some of the liberties that we take for granted, but when you get to see what people actually sacrifice—with their blood—then you get a different perspective of the country that you live in.”
Tony Jimenez, the president and CEO of Micro Tech, a small business devoted to service-disabled veteran, sponsors fighters including Cain Velasquez, Kris McCray, Edgar, and Evans, and he arranged the visit to the hospital.
“It’s really important to give back to the veterans,” he says. “These guys have sacrificed so much for us. When I bring fighters here, they appreciate how much the veterans love what they do, and the veterans are always excited to meet the fighters. It’s good for everyone involved.”
MMA Gives Back
Mohammad Ali once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room hereon earth.” The MMA community takes Ali’s words to heart, supporting various charities from the UFC’s Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund to Frank Shamrock’s anti-bullying campaign and everything in between. Here is a short list of charities that some of your favorite mixed martial artists are getting behind these days, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to spread some bling their way.
The UFC Welterweight Champion created The GSP Foundation (www.GSPFight-Club.com), which focuses on providing positive role models to local communities, with a special emphasis on positively impacting the lives of at-risk youth. GSP also supports Mission Skincare’s The MFoundation (www.themfoundation.org), where he is joined by other professional athletes (Serena Williams and Mia Hamm, to name a few) who educate and inspire American youth to perform their best in competition and in their communities.
The UFC Lightweight Champion supports Allies, Inc. (www.alliesnj.org), a nonprofit organization that provides housing, healthcare, meaningful employment, and recreational opportunities to people with special needs.
The UFC and Strikeforce veteran is no stranger to philanthropy. He supports many causes, raising money for the American Cancer Society, autism awareness, women’s self-defense efforts, Turning Wheels for Kids, and many more. After recently announcing his retirement, he developed an online community at www.standtogether.us, which offers support against bullying.
The former UFC Middleweight Champion has supported the Susan G. Komen for the Cure for breast cancer research (www.komen.org) by sporting and then auctioning a pink cast after breaking his arm in the first round against Chuck Liddell at UFC 115. In a show of support for the cause, Liddell signed the cast too. Franklin’s Keep it in the Ring Foundation also advocates non-violence and character-building activities, including after-school sports, martial arts, and life-skills programs.
The former UFC Champion has hosted a charity poker tournament and a charity paintball tournament in support of the Xtreme Couture G.I. Foundation, which honors veterans and families of the armed forces (www.xtremecouturegifoundation.org).
The former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion showed his support for The Yellow Ribbon Fund (www.yellowribbonfund.org) auction by donating autographed gloves, shorts, and a walkout t-shirt—all items he wore for his championship bout against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 86.
The UFC middleweight is the Executive Director of Hire Heroes, a non-profit organization that provides resources to help enable veterans a successful transition back into the work force after military duty, along with job search and job placement services to veterans and their spouses. Military veterans who have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, or those who have been wounded or disabled, have the highest unemployment. Stann’s efforts hope to reverse this trend. To support the cause, go to www.hireheroesusa.org.
DANA WHITE AND THE UFC
The UFC president generously supports the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (www.fallenheroesfund.org), which offers medical and financial support to soldiers who suffer traumatic brain injuries. UFC: Fight for the Troops, which aired on Dec.10, 2008, reportedly raised $4 million for the charity. There was a repeat performance at Fort Hood in UFC: Fight for the Troops 2 (www.fightforthetroops.com) on Jan. 22, 2011.