Interview with Army Sergeant Harry Gill: Army Combatives

Harry Gill entered military service in 2007 and has taken some time to discuss Army combatives and mindset both in the military and in civilian life.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Sergeant Gill and thank you for taking some time to talk with us!

Harry Gill: Thank you for inviting me!

MAYTT: How does the military address the training of hand to hand combat for their soldiers?

HG: Essentially, what they address for hand to hand combat is combatives. In basic training, everyone goes through a very basic level of certification, which contain a few chokes and pins. Quite honestly, as for hand to hand combat, they don’t even do bayonet courses anymore in basic, which is very strange as I had to do bayonet training.

When I went through combatives, our drill sergeant pulled us aside and said, “Look, just so you know, you guys still don’t know shit. You can’t kick anyone’s ass. Don’t go to a bar looking for a fight because you’re going to get the shit kicked out of you.” The whole purpose for combatives is to stay alive long enough for your battle buddy to shoot the guy you’re fighting. Of course, there are other levels within combatives, but, on the basic level, the whole purpose of combatives is more to survive long enough to get the bad guy dead.

MAYTT: You mentioned about the different levels within combatives. Are those levels more like opportunities for soldiers to continue training in combatives?

HG: Absolutely. I believe each level gets a little bit more intense. From what I understand, it doesn’t sound fun at all. I believe the last level is like a Mixed Martial Arts match without any protection, at all. I don’t think you can use closed fists; other than that, there are not a lot of other rules to follow. It doesn’t sound fun [Laughs]

MAYTT: That’s hardcore! Now, are those levels done through a sub-organization or is there a specific program that soldiers have to enroll into?

HG: Level I Combatives through Level IV Combatives are all through the Army. The Marine Corps may have something similar, because they steal all of our training. It is Army hand to hand combat programs. The other aspects of combatives, like knife fighting and hand to hand lethality training, that’s done more at other, higher levels in Ranger Battalion or the Ranger school. That’s where they’re taught how to be lethal in a hand to hand context.

MAYTT: From your experience, what do you see is the difference between the philosophies of martial arts and combatives used by the military and civilians?

HG: The philosophies are completely different. We are taught enough to be effective and to be able to survive. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it comes down to survival and lethality. If you’re a basic soldier and if you can keep yourself alive long enough for your battle buddy who’s right next to you to shoot the guy, that’s all you really need to know. You just need to know enough to accomplish the mission but not too much, because no one is going to be a “black belt” per se; no one is going to be a trained professional. Basic training is only ten weeks long and being a trained killer with combatives isn’t the goal or purpose. You run the risk of training people in all this stuff that they don’t need to know, or they shouldn’t know, because there are people who are not squarely individuals.

The Special Forces, obviously, or Ranger Battalion need a next level because of their job set. If I was a combat engineer or infantry, the odds of me going into an enemy environment in which I would happen to be skilled with hand to hand combat for my own survival would be very minimal. That is because the whole concept in the military is four to one, or four people to one bad guy. That’s why we go into room clearing, there are four of us going into one room because we think there is one bad guy in there. That’s the mindset. I don’t have to know how to take someone out with my hands; I just have to delay him a little bit.

MAYTT: You bring up the concept of knowing just enough to allow your comrades to help you. How does the military measure that level of proficiency in their soldiers or is that more of a grey area?

HG: Let me first start by asking you a question. Have you taken a basic CPR course and how many people in that room, at the end of the course, can actually save someone’s life? Outside of the instructor, maybe one or two people, right? But you had all those other people in that same course with you. What you have then is a syllabus; someone, somewhere, decided that this is what you need to know. This is the bare basics, bare minimum. For us, it’s easy stuff, like MMA stuff: rear naked chokes; if you can get around someone’s neck, they’re going down in three seconds, armbar, and guillotines. Those things are macro-movement oriented. That’s what they focus on more. It’s just the bare minimum so everyone can have the warm and fuzzies.

But in our world, if I am fighting a guy with my bare hands, I have royally fucked up somehow. We have cruiser weapons, with belt-fed machine guns and if they go down, I have my M4. If that goes down, I have my knife. If I don’t have my knife, I have a Kevlar helmet. I always have something. If all I have are my bare hands, then something went wrong along the way. When we get deployed, we’re never an arm’s length away from our weapon, unless it’s some other reason that was approved beforehand, but that’s not very common.

It’s not like they don’t care or it’s not relevant, the focus was different. For civilians, when they go about their day, they are mostly by themselves, outside of the times when they’re with friends and family. If you were to get attacked, they’re not in state-of-the-art body armor, with a fully automatic weapon, and 200-some rounds, and a squad of other people with them. They are there solo.

MAYTT: With all that reality laid out, why do people think of military as hand to hand combat kings or asskickers if the reality of getting into hand to hand combat in the field is very minimal?

HG: Ah! This is a conversation I’ve had with other people in the military and well as some family members. First, let me ask you this: in any given martial arts class, how many people in that class do you think would do whatever it took to stay alive? Not many, right? That’s the biggest difference between military combatives and civilian martial arts. When I came out of basic training, I was ready to take lives for this country. Granted, it was a different time when I went through basic; it was 2007.

Overall, the military focus on lethality. There is no such thing as the idea or concept of self-defense in the military – it’s stupid. All of our training has to do with reacting to an ambush as a worst-case scenario; because it you are ambushed, the odds are not good. Because of that, we focus on things like aggressive posture or never letting ourselves get into a position to get ambushed. A lot of our tactics and training have to do avoiding, detecting, preparing, or getting the edge on those kinds of situations. There is no scenario where a person attacks us, we disarm him, and he goes to the hospital. Rather, it’s some guy attacks me, he wants to kill me, and I’m going to kill him. Doing the bare minimum, in this type of situation, is not our mentality; we have the mindset behind it. That’s what they train us for and that’s why

Granted, most of us aren’t badasses. If you were to look at the general breakup of the Army, about five to eight of those jobs are combat-related and the other 150 are like supply, intelligence, finance, laundry specialist, shower repair, and the list can go on. No, they’re not all there but we all know that if it’s our turn to go down range, we have the mindset that we are coming home and nothing will get in our way. You only have combatants and noncombatants. You shot combatants until they stop moving, because that’s what you have to do.

That’s the warrior mindset. It doesn’t matter what you have in your hand, we will take whatever we have and use it as a weapon. That right there is, in my opinion, the biggest difference between civilian and military or combat veterans. We know there are people out there that want to kill you – everyday is life and death. It doesn’t feel like that here when you’re among civilians. I have Wi-Fi and all these other comforts that I wouldn’t have if I was deployed. But the mindset stays with us. If you start looking for it, you can tell when those with the experience and mindset.

I’ll give you an example: if there are a bunch of them sitting at a table, they’re all scanning and looking for an avenue of approach and of escape. Every person that comes in gets assessed and then it’s moved on to another person. They are always looking, always scanning, and assessing any potential threat.

MAYTT: You bring up the point about the warrior mindset. In my research of the American police force, there is this concern with the warrior mindset, where the departments mimic some aspects of the military. In your opinion, should the police force have the warrior mentality as they are serving civilians, or should they not have that sort of mindset?

HG: That’s something that I’ve thought about in the past. That’s a complex issue and there’s no solving that. I’m going to answer this in a few different ways. First thing’s first, civilians need to be silent on some issues. Civilians do not know what it’s like to be a cop. I’m sure they could picture it, and when I picture it, I think it’s not the best job to have out there. Who is really happy to see a cop? Never. Whatever person you’re dealing with, they’re pissed off because they did something wrong. Every person you deal is mad at you because they did something wrong. I’m sure most people don’t want that as their job.

Yes, there are people who were bullied in high school and want to start taking it out on other people, but as a whole, a lot of these people are of the mindset of “This sounds interesting,” or “I really want to do some good in my community.” They all start out with good intentions.

Civilians, or the masses, aren’t the best of people at times either. People in general are animals and we do really messed-up things. For a civilian to sit there and criticize a police officer who may have used some excessive force in one situation without knowing what being a police officer fully entails is a bit ironic. Do you know how much stuff that they see on an almost regular basis? It’s not like me, when I went over to Iraq and Afghanistan where I can have a bias and an opinion on those people because I saw and experienced them. But the police officers are dealing with the American people. These are neighbors and community members where cops live close to in the same state, within the same country. They see what we do to ourselves; that’s gotta mess with their minds. Then for the civilian population, who, as a whole, most of them have never really tried to serve the greater good. Let’s just say that twenty-five percent of the population actually actively contribute to bettering this country and our hometowns. That’s still seventy-five percent of the people who have no idea what it’s like to care and make a difference for anybody else. Those seventy-five percent shouldn’t have a say as to how we fight wars or how the military should be operated because they have no idea. It would be like me criticizing a martial arts instructor because I’ve never taught martial arts. I have no idea what to do. It’s the same thing with the civilian population and the police.

Just to give you a bit more background on the warrior mindset and how it effects veterans: when we come back from overseas and we become cops, it’s better because one of the things that come along with deployments is that adrenaline and high-stress situations, everyone is hyper focused; time slows down, colors become brighter, hyper vigilance, and more detail oriented. Instead of being blinded like an untrained civilian, now you have someone who gets an adrenaline dump, read the situation, and act accordingly because of the training they had in the military. It’s all muscle memory.

As far as the warrior mindset in law enforcement, I think it is a good thing, but I also can see it being a bad thing. At the end of the day, we are trained to see threats and eliminate them. Cops are actual more civilian in mindset, it’s just that they’ve been exposed to more experiences and more situations. They don’t have the discipline. Their firearms training is just God awful. We have people go through basic training, and within two weeks, people who haven’t fired a gun before can shoot like an expert. That is an issue right there: the police’s training is not allowing them to become proficient with the equipment that they have available to them.

Perhaps a possible solution to all of this is much like how people claim that everyone should serve in the military for x amount of years, but have people serve for x amount of years as a civil servant. Think that if everyone spent two years as some sort of civil servant, we won’t have people that are biased or have no idea what it’s like to be in those types of positions.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, the issues that pervade law enforcement are complicated. People are people, and they will always be people. Law enforcement is probably more squared away than it ever has been. The Los Angeles Police Department used to have a horrible reputation. Law enforcement in general used to do some much violence – look at the 1960s and 1970s. Now, things are so charged though. If I was them, I would be pretty nervous and a very twitchy trigger-finger because there are cops getting hit in their cars. They’re almost afraid to do their job because of the almost extreme reaction they’re going to get from the general public. The worst-case scenario is that he has to draw his gun. That’s the same for military, but we both would rather do our mission or job and get to go home. But now, there has to be so much stress in that, because if they have to draw their weapon, it’s a matter of life or death. They’re going to be afraid and they’re going to second-guess so much because they are worried about the political ramifications of doing their job.

I don’t think that there is an easy solution to this because if you militarize the police force… well, they shouldn’t be militarized because that’s not their purpose or their responsibility. Either you keep them as civil servants and they remain as civil servants, so they don’t need a SWAT force or fully automatic weapons or not. First off, they shouldn’t have those types of firearms. If they can’t shoot a pistol, why do they have a fully automatic rifle? [Laughs]

MAYTT: In your experience, are there any difference between soldiers that do continue with such training compared to those who don’t? If so, how do the two groups compare in proficiency levels?

HG: From the people that I know and came into contact with, there are those that are really good at combatives and it goes to their head. But, in the larger picture, being really good or proficient at combatives doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t matter because, as far as being a soldier, there is so much more to it. Like I said before, getting into a hand to hand combat situation is very slim. And if it does happen, that is bad and a failure on my end. There’s not a lot of martial arts or combatives that will teach you the right techniques for life or death hand to hand combat situations.

I used to train in martial arts back in the day, but it’s very hard to train real-world. If you want self-defense where you immobilize or incapacitate an assailant, that’s great for civilian training, but that’s not the point or purpose for the military. Even if you break the assailant’s arm, he still has another arm and his legs to use against you. The military trains us to shoot to kill, essentially. As far as combatives and martial arts, I don’t think there are a lot of martial arts out there that have the mindset of kill or be killed; even if it did, how do you practice it? Not to mention who’s going to send their children there to train in that atmosphere? [Laughs] The unfortunate part about things coming to America is that it comes down to marketability and that kill or be killed mindset isn’t that marketable to most Americans.

One of the biggest differences between military training and martial arts training, from what I’ve seen, is that martial arts have a lot of ego involved. I’ve also seen this in the firearms world. You have the operator wannabes that show up at the range with their 9/11 pants on, Black Hawk holsters, Cooper 1911s, and other equipment. They can put rounds on paper but they’re 400 pounds, which raises the question: “How are you going to defend anyone if you have a massive heart attack as soon as the first round fires?” They are some of the same people that argue over the many ways of shooting, aiming, or reloading. And it’s kind of the same thing in the martial arts field, where you’re in one school or one system and you argue with another school on how to perform a certain technique, even though there might be just slight modification.

Unfortunately, martial arts today have taken on the mindset of feeling good. It feels good to get that black belt or it feels good to know something. Feeling alone doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good at it. For the military, there is no ego in our training. If I screw up, I screw up and that’s it. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad soldier, it just means I need to correct something. We train together because it’s not about me as an individual. I might be the best soldier the military has ever seen, but if my team sucks, then I suck. There’s no ego because it really has to do with the team, the squad, the platoon, and company.

MAYTT: Final question. In your opinion, what can the American police force learn from the military and its combatives?

HG: It all comes back down to mindset. As far as the military combatives, it is highly effective and highly proficient because of its purpose, just like the civilian side with the martial arts. Our purpose for combatives is to do minimal stuff that you can easily learn but just enough for the sole purpose of keeping you alive, which is the biggest premise behind self-defense. Though it’s not extensive and though it’s not anything super cool or high speed, it is enough to stay alive because of our dynamics. 

MAYTT: Thank you for your insights in Army combatives!

HG: Any time!

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