KABUL, Afghanistan -- Being thrown around in the dirt after working a 12- to 15-hour shift in a combat zone may not be an ideal ending to the day. But 14 soldiers, sailors and airmen at Camp Eggers, Afghanistan, volunteered for it.
They were students in the Marine Corps Martial Arts tan belt course that teaches basic close-combat techniques. The two-week class ran five days a week from 6 to 9 p.m. and was taught by U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Douglas Yagel, senior noncommissioned officer of the Office of Military Cooperation Afghanistan's Air Plans section, with the help of former graduates of the class.
Yagel decided to teach the martial arts program here for a couple of reasons. Since he is a certified instructor, it is part of his job to teach martial arts. So it keeps his skills sharp. He has instructed more than 50 people since his arrival in Kabul. "Once you are an instructor, at least for me, you feel the need to teach," Yagel said.
He also thought training a small group of people would allow the combat mentality to trickle down to others in the students' units.
The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program has evolved with the ever-changing styles and concepts of combat. It incorporates techniques from various established martial arts. The program consists of a belt-ranking system with five basic levels: tan, gray, green, brown and black belt. Black belts can attain one of six degrees of black belt skill.
Each student learned and was tested on techniques they could need in various situations. The techniques included how to restrain people who grab them from behind, how to get out of headlocks and choke holds, and how to stop a person from taking a weapon from them.
The tan belt class is made up of three parts that work together to "produce a warrior": physical, mental and character training.
"It can't be all physical training. You can teach anybody how to kill, but if they don't have the character side and the mental side, they won't use (the training) in the proper context," Yagel said. "It is about knowing when and where to use the techniques."
Yagel and the other instructors had to be creative when planning the physical conditioning because the space and training aids are limited here. He said the altitude was a concern also, since Kabul is 5,900 feet above sea level.
The purpose of the mental training was to get the students thinking more about their surroundings and to be ready for anything. He believes everyone here should be in a combat mindset, assessing the intent of everyone around and always thinking like the enemy.
Yagel gave classes on what to look for when you are outside Camp Eggers in the city of Kabul and on the process of thinking through each situation. He taught the students how to be aware of the possibility that something could go wrong.
The techniques taught were the same Marines learn in boot camp. But, Yagel said, the class is a little different here. "We are in a combat zone. It is easier to relate it to everyday, real-world situations. So the mentality is different," he said. "After the class, you could go out the gate to go home and be confronted with a situation that you just learned about."
The class was challenging for every student.
"I wanted to learn some basic combat martial arts skills. But I really wanted to prove to myself, and others, that I could do it. I knew it was going to be physically tough, and I did not want to quit once I started it," U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Doty said. "I received valuable skills, and many bruises, out of the class."
"It is all a state of mind," U.S. Army Maj. Miguel Gonzalez said as beads of sweat dripped from his forehead. Gonzalez had just passed the test for his tan belt.
For some students, this was more than a chance to learn martial arts techniques.
"As a staff officer you don't get the opportunity to break a sweat and get in the dirt with the soldiers as often as you used to," U.S. Army Lt. Col. Rick Noriega said. "I am 47 years old. I will never again have the opportunity to get this training -- and it is free!"
Everyone who started the class graduated, which is above average. Yagel said the average is 10 graduates in a class of 12. "I knew everyone would graduate," Yagel said. "They proved themselves every time they came to 'the pit.' The true test is making it through the day-to-day training and the combat-conditioning drills."
The day before they tested for their belt, Yagel told his class, "This class will not teach you everything you need to know, but it will get you into the right frame of mind. It will build a warrior mentality."