Chula Vista business owner Elias Gallegos is using martial arts to fight against post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
Gallegos is owner and instructor at Alliance BJJ Eastlake where he offers free training to any members or former members of the military who have been affected by PTSD.
“Sometimes these guys get deployed, they come back, they get out of the military and they don’t know anybody. And they want to stay in San Diego and it’s very hard to find that camaraderie that they had,” said Gallegos, a second-degree black belt who has studied and taught Brazilian jiu jitsu since the mid-1990s. “These guys are warriors so the next logical step is to continue that, not so much a warrior mentality, but in a martial arts capacity because they want to better themselves.”
PTSD is a disorder shared by 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The focus, cooperation and sportsmanship that jiu jitsu requires helps veterans with PTSD overcome many problems common to the disorder like stress, anxiety and isolation, said Gallegos.
“It’s to just be a part of something. Be a part of a family again,” Gallegos said. “I would say 60 to 70 percent of my adult students are ex-military or ex-law-enforcement. And I don’t ask for documentation or anything, because a lot of veterans are trying to get jobs in the public sector and they don’t want the stigma of PTSD.”
Gallegos did not always use his fighting skills to give back to the community. A one-time bodyguard to drug dealers, Gallegos turned a corner after he was arrested for possessing an unlicensed firearm and $75,000 cash.
“I did things that I’m never going to forget, that will always be with me for the rest of my life,” Gallegos said. “The only reason that I’m alive is that I gave my life over to Christ. I have friends that are dead and friends that are missing. For whatever reason God saved me from all that.”
Gallegos also has a program through the San Diego Police Department to help juvenile delinquents avoid strict sentencing. He offers a six-week jiu jitsu course from which first-time offenders can graduate in exchange for reduced sentencing or to avoid incarceration.
Of the 15 students who have come to him so far through the program, only one has made it to graduation.
“But that one girl? She’s mine. I’m not going let anybody take her from me. The streets and what happened to her, I’m not going to let that affect her in the way things affected me when I was a kid. If I can save her, it’ll all be worth it, all the time that I give.”
Those who do graduate from the program receive lifetime memberships to Gallegos’ academy. Gallegos has had about 20 veterans come through his PTSD program with six current participants, and he wants more.
“Hearing these guys with PTSD tell me I saved their life, how can I even begin to understand how something like this saves their life?” Gallegos said. “That’s everything to me. I wish I could just do that, but I have to pay bills. If they can make it to my gym and they have PTSD, they get to train for free,” he added.