A Wounded Warrior’s Mission from the Mats to Mt. Everest

 

Robert Disney Representing Ribeiro Jiu Jitsu and Wounded Warriors Everywhere on Mt. Everest–personal archive

 

Jiu Jitsu has the power to draw people from all walks of life.  Each person comes to the mats for their own reasons.  And these reasons are as varied as the participants on the mats everyday.  I recently had the opportunity to talk to fellow Ribeiro Jiu Jitsu Team member and American hero Robert Disney about his experiences as a special forces soldier, jiu jitsu participant and Wounded Warriors Project activist and how these three roles interrelate.

Todd Shaffer:  Robert, people are fascinated by ‘special forces’. Tell us a little bit about your experiences in the special forces. In my experience, we have traditionally heard more about Navy Seals and Army Rangers, but I’ve noticed with shows like Combat Rescue we are learning more about all branches. How would you sum up the differences between the forces for the average person?
Robert Disney:  The most important thing to understand about the Special Operations community is that, despite our individual differences and rivalries, we are a single, unified entity with a proud heritage of interoperability and a strong degree of mutual respect and camaraderie. The quality of the sailor, soldier, airman, or marine in Special Operations is the same. Our only real difference is in our mission sets. Each operator is custom-selected for his own ability to withstand tremendous physical and psychological stress. Once he passes this initial “gut check” and is placed into mission specialization training, the difference begins to show. Each service lends its own special piece to the joint mission. SEALS perform seek and destroy missions, with an emphasis on maritime capabilities. Special Forces are experts in unconventional warfare. Combat Controllers provide the air-to-ground link to effectively manage airspace and deliver firepower on targets. Finally, Pararescue (my career field) is uniquely specialized to recover anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. The real magic comes when these amazing operators work together to produce results greater than by acting alone!

TS:  What was your most rewarding experience as a special forces soldier?

RD:   My most rewarding experience as an operator was probably performing non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO) in Lebanon in 2006. Israel and Hezbollah were lobbing rockets back and forth at each other, and many Americans living abroad were caught in the crossfire. Over the course of about two months, we helped evacuate 1500 American citizens from Lebanon! We flew sometimes 12 hours a day, making multiple runs back and forth over the Mediterranean Sea. The thing that makes this kind of work so rewarding is that NEO survivors are not military, but families with children, and the elderly. They have no training, are very scared, and just want to be helped. It was hot and exhausting, but at the end of the day it was very personally fulfilling. However, my most rewarding experience as a man has been seeing the young operators I have trained over the years turn into outstanding operators on their own. Each of their individual successes outweighs the collective sum of all my own, and I am eternally grateful for their willingness to share them with me.

TS:  What was your scariest?

RD:  My scariest experience came on April 18, 2003, when Taliban forces ambushed my team as we infiltrated into an LZ in Operation Enduring Freedom. As I shouldered my rifle to return fire on the enemy, I was shot in the face with an AK-47. The bullet smashed into the right side of my face and exited the back of my neck, just missing my spine. Thankfully, one of my own PJs was uninjured and managed to keep the three of us alive until we reached the combat hospital.

TS:  What brought you to jiu jitsu?

RD: I was brought to Jiu Jitsu by a desire to further my skills as a combatant and to enhance my physical fitness program.

TS:  Had you trained any jiu jitsu in the past as part of your military training?

RD:  I had attained a level 2 certification in Modern Army Combatives. I had trained off and on for several years, but only enough to think I was better than I really was! (Something my Ribeiro Jiu Jitsu Institute classmates were quick to correct).

TS:  What’s your favorite part of jiu jitsu training?

RD:  The people. Having spent the majority of my adult life in such an elite community of special operators, I have become accustomed to a particular type of camaraderie–one based on trust, respect, and a whole lot of healthy heckling! I get this same type of camaraderie with my fellow Jiu Jitsu practitioners, something that is hard to come by outside of the teams.

TS:  What is your least favorite part?

RD:  Stretching (Ugh!)

TS:  What’s it like to train with Professor Ben Eaton at the Institute?

RD: Training with Professor Eaton at the Institute is the experience of a lifetime. He is a gifted instructor, able to break down even the most complex lessons into digestible bits of information. He is also highly credible, as he regularly competes and wins in tournaments. Finally, I am lucky enough to call him one of my closest, personal friends. I found Ben shortly after relocating to Virginia with my wife. I spoke with him the first time on the phone and quickly learned that he is my age and a fellow Midwesterner. Our common interests and backgrounds led to late nights out with our wives, and has since forged one of my most valued friendships.

TS:  How did the opportunity to climb Mt. Everest come about? Tell me a little bit about that experience.

Robert Disney at Mt. Everest Base Camp Holding Wounded Warrior Flag–personal archive

 

RD:  Eight years ago, Air Force V-22 pilot Major Rob Marshall conceived an idea of a team of Air Force personnel climbing each of the highest peaks on the seven continents. This year, having already climbed six of the seven peaks, his team summited Mount Everest, the worlds highest mountain at just over 29,000 feet above sea level. Major Marshall recognized the rehabilitation and recovery capabilities of the mountains and opened up the trek to Everest Base Camp to Wounded Warriors. He got in touch with the non-profit organization That Others May Live Foundation, who extended an invitation to accompany them. In a single word, the trip was EPIC. We flew halfway around the world and spent three weeks above 10,000 feet, as high as 19,000 feet, and were surrounded by world class mountaineers and 8000 meter peaks! To make it even more amazing, after returning from base camp and the 80+ mile round trip trek thought the Himalayas, we received a hero’s welcome by the US Ambassador to Nepal and his Embassy staff. Every single day I went to bed thinking “there is no way tomorrow can possibly be more amazing than today was,” but each following day proved me wrong! Maj Marshall’s YouTube video of him doing 30 push-ups on the summit of Mount Everest (without oxygen, mind you) went viral, and as a result, we appeared on Fox &Friends and the Today Show!

Robert Disney takes his gi to new heights at the Mt. Everest Base Camp–personal archive

TS:  How is Jiu Jitsu similar, different than the military experiences and your Everest experience. What did you learn in each that helps you with the others? I’m curious as to how your various experiences inform each other. Personally, jiu jitus challenges me in ways that I’ve never experienced, not having been in the military or having tried some extreme challenge like mountain climbing. As someone who’s experienced all three, I wonder if there are parallels between the experiences.

RD:  The parallels are striking, and numerous. In each environment, you intentionally put your life on the line as a normal part of training. The Institute is a controlled practice environment for real world combat! Every time you roll, you are engaging in a potentially lethal game of chess that uses the body as a rook or knight and the mat as the board. If you doubt the “lethal” comparison, you havent spent enough time rolling with a black belt; but even MY sloppiest choke can still restrict blood flow to the brain, rendering the victim unconscious first, and dead in a few minutes. The psychological mindset required to engage in combat is the same, whether its on the mats or in the field. The similarities don’t stop there, either. Both require discipline, physical fitness, commitment, and trust.

TS:  What upcoming plans do you have specifically in the world of jiu jitsu and the Wounded Warriors project?

RD:  I had to stop training JJ from October 2012 to May 2013 for a devastating shoulder injury I suffered during a parachuting landing. My plans for the immediate future are to get back into the game through a combination of classes and private lessons, compete this summer in a tournament, and join some of my best friends as a blue belt. My buddies all think i’m crazy because I built a dummy from a flight suit stuffed with blankets and dressed in a gi, but the drilling will all pay off soon and I’ll have the last laugh. My primary goal as a Wounded Warrior is to retire from taking part in Wounded Warrior events as a participant (effective immediately) and devote my efforts to setting up events and assisting other Wounded Warriors, especially those with needs greater than my own.

TS:  Any advice for the average person who is interested in the lifestyle/history of the special forces on how to learn more?

RD:  The best thing you can do is to talk to your local recruiters. They will do their best to inform you of their own special operations component. It also helps to do your own research through the Internet and books. Learn about each branch’s own unique missions, after which you can make your own decision of which one interests you most. Remember…don’t get hurt, don’t quit, and meet the standards every single day.

TS:  Robert, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me and PullingGuardZine.  I truly want to thank you for your service to the country and the amazing work you’re doing with the Wounded Warriors Project.  I look forward to meeting you on the mats some day very soon.  Any final thoughts?

RD:  Dreams are seeds of reality; the bigger you dream, the bigger your reality will become.

Todd Shaffer

Todd Shaffer

Todd is a 41 year old, purple belt in Jiu Jitsu under John Rozzi and Saulo Ribeiro and a white belt in most other things.
Todd Shaffer

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