Sixteen years ago, Staff Sgt. Shanen Dunagan swapped his military fatigues for a gi (pronounced “gee”) to offer wounded veterans a chance to rehabilitate from traumas endured while in service.
His Chandler organization, Survivors of War, incorporates restorative counseling with physical activities that play to the strengths and interests of veterans, while tending to the residual mental and emotional stressors that could be affecting them on a daily basis.
The nonprofit offers activities such as golf clinics, scuba diving lessons and woodworking projects, but the main draw is the martial art Jiu Jitsu to help replace fear-based responses with healthier decision-making.
Jiu Jitsu has been referred to as a “gentle” martial art because of its approach towards hand-to-hand combat where joint manipulation and timely weight distribution play a much bigger role than brute strength.
There is also a heavy focus on mental conditioning, which can help to desensitize areas of anxiety and retrain the thought processes of individuals who struggle with depression, irrational fear, hyperactivity or low self-confidence.
“When something [traumatic] occurs and the victim’s brain is not conditioned to operate [productively] under that level of stress, it goes into fight or flight mode,” Dunagen explained.
The emotional imprint left behind for how to respond to real or perceived threats in the future is then also unproductive and interferes with normal life.
Dunagan described how fear-based decision-making can perpetuate a victim mentality and limit the effectiveness of more traditional trauma therapies for folks in the military or other emergency responders.
An important goal of his Jiu Jitsu lessons is to recondition the mind of any individual who has been through what he calls “extraordinary circumstances.”
In group and private classes, participants are gradually invited into a state of physical or emotional stress under the guidance of trauma informed coaches.
Instead of fighting at “level 100 percent,” or returning to the panic mode associated with traumatic experiences, participants are challenged to progressively engage in maneuvers or physically demanding situations until they find themselves comfortably able to operate at about 80 percent.
“Training in a heightened state absolutely changes the mindset and neurological tone of the individual. That’s why it’s so effective with other therapies,” said the former Marine Core martial arts instructor.
Dunagan formed S.O.W. in 2016 in response to the need to expand veteran-focused programs in the area which presented limitations based on disability types.
After being injured and medically discharged 10 years into his own military career, he found the rehabilitative programs too narrow.
At 45 and with “a lot of titanium” in his body, the retired veteran is putting his 30 years of martial arts experience towards helping fellow wounded warriors on a different battlefront.
“With this mental reconditioning, a person can walk [through life] in confidence, believing that even in the worst-case scenario, they can think clearly enough to act in defense and come away alive,” he said.
S.O.W. is currently expanding its programming to college campuses and female only lessons led by Dunagan’s wife, Monica.
“The Warrior Women’s program is a bit more street-cased, or assault-based,” he said, noting there is a greater emphasis on self-esteem building, where “you can be a smaller and physically weaker person,” but be fully empowered to survive regardless.
The added classes are attracting a new crowd of ‘survivors’ such as those who have experienced domestic violence, at-risk youth, and victims of human or sex trafficking.
The female-only classes provide one more level of comfort to help participants move from a place of fear to one of trust so essential skills can be mastered before trying a co-ed class that could present with its own triggering scenarios.
“As you build up a tolerance for some else’s weight being on you and in what is considered a tight space, participants can replace their panic response with a more effective escape strategy” Dunagan said.
One participant, Rachel Ortiz of Gilbert, shared her experience when starting last year.
“I thought, ‘I’m just going to go to a trial and see what happens’,” said the 24-year old college student, who was once a victim of sexual abuse.
Just thinking about putting herself into a vulnerable position on the floor mats in the co-ed class caused her to have “a total meltdown,” as she put it. But Dunagan picked up on her body language and adjusted the lesson to meet her personal needs.
“We started with some super simple moves of how to push someone off or away from me,” Ortiz said.
She was surprised by how much of a difference that made. Ortiz was not only encouraged to keep a safe distance but equipped with the ability to increase that distance in a highly effective way.
After a year of group lessons, Ortiz observed how much calmer she is overall, even though memories of her trauma still present themselves in times of stress.
“Whenever those thoughts and feelings come up, I can think back to things I’ve learned in class,” she said.
She refocuses her energy, “replacing those feelings of fear with feelings of power.”
Those who are interested in a lesson are welcome to simply observe before they commit.
“There’s always a question when we meet of ‘What brought you in?’ and many people open up right away,” says Dunagan, but there is no requirement to disclose anything personal.
Visitors are given time to describe what activities they are uncomfortable with and he and Monica can then tailor their experience to establish a safe starting place for each individual. “It’s all case by case,” he explained.
Students of the ASU Tempe and Polytechnic campuses who are interested in an upcoming college event can reach out online or by phone to get the dates.
Dunagan is also able to minister to student-veterans at a deeper level as the newly hired chaplain for the ASU Pat Tillman Veteran Center.
More information on all classes at WeAreSOW.org or 480- 442-6273.