Fort Stewart's SSgt. Keith Bach took home first place honors from an Army-wide combatives championship at Fort Benning earlier this month.
More than 280 soldiers from around the Army competed in the fourth annual U.S. Army Combatives Championship Oct. 4-5 with 28 making the finals in seven weight classes.
The growth of the competition -- there were twice as many competitors this year as last -- reflects the fact that more and more soldiers are recognizing the relevance of combatives training, said SFC (ret.) Matt Larsen, director of the Combatives School at Fort Benning and author of the Army combatives manual.
This year's competition drew competitors from Guam, Korea, Alaska and Iraq.
Fort Stewart, Fort Sill, Okla., and Fort Lewis, Wash., each took home a first place. Fort Bragg, N.C., claimed three winners, and soldiers from Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Lewis tied for first place in the team category. A Fort Benning soldier, SSgt. Brandon Sayles, of 3rd Squadron, 1st Calvary Regiment, took first in the heavyweight category.
Sayles, 27, won first place in 2006 but missed last year's competition because he was deployed in Iraq.
The combatives competition is a hit with the crowd, he said, but the "close combat," or hand-to-hand training serves a greater purpose in the global war on terrorism.
"People don't realize -- sure, we compete because it's fun and great morale and it's a great competition -- but it saves lives in combat," he said. "There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of documented cases of people using combatives to fight off somebody until they can get help -- that's what it's about."
Master Sgt. John Long, first-place winner in the light heavyweight class, served with Larsen in the 75th Ranger Regiment more than a decade ago when combatives training was in its infancy. Long said he knew then that Larsen "was onto something," but he never imagined the training would have such a great impact on soldiers Army-wide -- not just infantry soldiers.
Combatives training is just as important as weaponry training, Long said, because soldiers in combat today are often confronting the enemy in "close quarters" during urban operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today's soldiers are entering houses, he said, where the enemy may be hiding behind a couch.
"You never know what'll happen. The (soldier) has all his equipment on, and someone jumps on his back -- he has to be able to play that game too," Long said. "You want a soldier who is educated and skilled in his primary weapons, but one who can also defend himself in hand-to-hand combat."