News: Senior leader fights to support Army Combatives Program
Story by Spc. Taryn Hagerman
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Lt. Col. Praxitelis N. Vamvakias, 82nd Airborne Division inspector general, works in a small office. A helmet rests atop a filing cabinet; his military-issued protective vest leans against a small couch near his pre-packed rucksack. Army leadership binders and combat gear surround him as he works to ensure unit readiness across the division.
This is a soldier’s office.
Vamvakias, of Fairfax, Va., is a marksmanship enthusiast who supports all activities that improve soldier skills and create esprit de corps. So, it comes as no surprise that he also supports the Army Combatives Program.
Even with a nearly full schedule, Vamvakias was excited to take on a new challenge when he was offered an opportunity to showcase his warrior skills in an exhibition match during the 2013 Fort Bragg Army Combatives Championship Invitational finals at Sports USA, Dec. 14.
“Combatives builds confidence and teaches you tactical patience and those skills bleed over into our mission, your thought process and the things you do,” Vamvakias said. “I think it makes you a better, more resilient soldier.”
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Yurk, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Combatives and Advanced Tactics School, directed the competition and organized seven exhibition matches. He invited Vamvakias to go head-to-head with Col. Bruce Parker, XVIII Airborne Corps operations officer.
“Combatives not only builds the overall warrior, but more importantly, establishes the foundation for who we are as soldiers and paratroopers,” Yurk said.
As for why Vamvakias is one of only 14 exhibition match competitors, Yurk said his decision was based mostly on respect.
“Lt. Col. Vamvakias is a leader who is willing to put it all on the line, be in an uncomfortable situation and show these soldiers what it is all about,” Yurk said. “He is one of those leaders who is the absolute definition of what it means to be a leader and a Paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.”
With limited Army combatives training and some Tae Kwon Do exposure in college, Vamvakias was excited for the matchup.
“It’s a good experience,” he said. “You learn a lot from competing and you learn a lot from the people you compete against. You’re always getting better because there’s usually someone out there better than you that you can learn from.”
One of those people who has more experience is Vamvakias’ trainer and coach, Sgt. Joshua Devereux, an instructor at the 82nd Airborne Division’s Combatives and Advanced Tactics School.
Vamvakias trained with Devereux for six days before the fight.
“It would have been even better to have more time to work together,” Devereux said. “He learned fast and always brought a positive attitude to practice.”
They practiced at the combatives school during their lunch hours, working on techniques ranging from how to avoid takedowns to how to position joint locks such as arm bars.
Committed to giving his all in this fight, Vamvakias took his trainer’s advice concerning hydration, healthy eating and studying combatives videos to get a sense for how competitors move in a fight.
“It’s [watching the videos] motivating, and it helps me put it all together,” said Vamvakias.
After weighing in the day before the fight, Devereux gave Vamvakias a final recap of the advice from the week, emphasizing instructions for the day of the fight. He recommended eating healthy and often throughout the day leading up to his fight. He also reminded Vamvakias to maintain a low heart rate and clear mind.
After taking in his trainer’s suggestions, Vamvakias had to hurry back from the weigh-in to attend back-to-back meetings at the office. Then he sacrificed yet another lunch hour to watch some preliminary fights for the tournament.
The day of the exhibition arrived quickly after a tough week of balancing work with training. Vamavakias, who spent most of the afternoon with his family, drove to Sports USA with his two youngest sons.
It was standing room only, as soldiers and family members attended the combatives finals to support the Army Combatives Program.
Vamvakias and his sons watched the matches preceding his before Devereux helped him warm-up. Soon, it was time for the final exhibition match to take place.
The announcer’s voice boomed over the speakers to call Vamvakias into the blue corner of the ring. He leaned toward the cage as Devereux gave him some final reminders to control his breathing and composure.
He faced Parker, who had competed in about 10 Army combatives tournaments during his nearly 30 years of active duty service. A bell signaled the start of the fight and Vamvakias moved toward his opponent.
“I was surprised he came out attacking first,” said Vamvakias.
The spectators roared, but Vamvakias heard sounds of a muffled crowd with one voice cutting through it all.
“All I heard was him [Devereux],” he said. “I was trying to do what he was saying. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I wasn’t.”
Vamvakias fought to counter each of Parker’s attacks.
“I was extremely impressed with his composure,” Devereux said. “He didn’t stop attacking and countering. He exhibited those warrior attributes and showed a lot of heart.”
Vamvakias lost to Parker by submission after a tiring three and a half minutes of fighting.
“It takes a lot of courage and confidence to step in front of your peers and compete like this,” Parker said. “He [Vamvakias] is a good person, good leader and a great example for all these soldiers here.”
Immediately after the fight, Vamvakias hugged Devereux and his two sons. Vamvakias, feeling as if he let himself down, apologized to his coach.
“He didn’t let me down,” Deverux said. “He closed the distance and engaged with his target, and he fought hard. He did fantastic.”
Though disappointing, the loss did not discourage Vamvakias. Tenacity quickly smothered any regrets, as his thought following the fight was that he wanted to do this again.
“I told Col. Parker that I want a rematch,” he said. “It may be a while before that happens, but that’s okay because it gives me more time to train.”
Devereux is equally confident in his trainee's abilities to advance in combatives.
“I want him to continue this journey—it’s only going to make him better, as an infantry officer and in every other part of his life,” Devereux said. “Nothing else crosses over to the battlefield better than this [combatives].”
The exhibition fight, and the others held alongside the championship fights, was arranged to allow leaders the opportunity to lead from the front with Army Combatives.
“Typically, senior command, like colonels and command sergeants major, don’t have the luxury of time to commit to a full tournament,” said Yurk. “So, allowing them to have a match within the finals to display that leadership from the front just seemed like a natural thing to do.”
Vamvakias was grateful to have this experience and plans to make Army combatives part of his routine.
“I think it’s an important aspect for our soldiers,” he said. “I’ve supported combatives since the beginning. What you learn here relates to the battlefield and the skills you learn here also relate to everything you do in life.”