Deep in the red heart of Mineral Wells, Texas, an Iraq War veteran stands focused in the center of a professional wrestling ring inside an American legion hall. Ask any of his friends or family in the crowd and they’ll tell you that’s Eddie Wittern – the U.S. Army vet, the five-time world jiu jitsu champion – but in a way, it’s not. This is “Eddie Scott,” the 34-year-old’s demented, war-inspired wrestling character.
He’s stacked, a military-trained mixed martial artist in real life, but he ups the ante for this role. Cloaked in pink, black and white acrylic face paint, Wittern wears clown makeup to add a twisted visual to pair with the tormenting words coming off “Eddie Scott’s” tongue. For what’s about to come next, the disguise might be the best defense going for him.
“Where are all my veterans at?” he asks the crowd. One by one, they stand up – proud, ready to be honored and thanked. Eddie points to a few of them. “No, not you Desert Storm guys,” he says, brushing them off. “Your four-day camping trip didn’t count. We were in firefights longer than your war.” The crowd is shocked, and they begin to turn on him. He points to a few more, “Where are my Vietnam guys? OK, you guys sit down ‘cause you guys quit.”
Boos. Jeers. Threats.
In the pro wrestling world, Wittern’s job is complete. He was playing the bad guy (the “heel”) and the crowd hated him, just like he hoped they would. But after the show and back in the parking lot, the real work begins. This is where Wittern usually has long, sometimes tense conversations with fellow veterans. He explains that he’s a veteran himself and he wanted to piss them off so much during the show that they’d come to talk afterwards. He wants to meet them, ask how they’re doing, and tell them his story.
“It’s about getting a reaction from the crowd, whether it’s good or bad,” Wittern, 34, tells Rolling Stone. “If you can get somebody engaged, then you can tell them whatever you need to tell them after the fact.”
The discussions always lead to war: the things they saw; what it was like to finally come home; and how different they, and the world, were when they got back. Wittern listens as they explain how they cope. He’s been through just about all of it himself: the drinking, the anger, the depression, the suicide attempts. It’s the unspoken cost. They all managed to return home alive, but now they’re tasked with figuring out how to move on.
Wittern found solace in pro wrestling upon returning home in 2011, where he can blow off steam through intense exercise and can sharpen his focus when coordinating synchronized matches with other performers. It’s also how he met two other Iraq War veterans, Jan Ohrstrom and John Brazier. Together, the three men wrestle as “The Valhalla Club,” a Texas-based group of veterans using the fast-action art form as therapy and an advocacy group to reach others battling PTSD. They want to encourage veterans to seek help and find ways to channel their negative energy into something positive – whether it’s pro wrestling or another self-mediated form of therapy like drawing or running.
“No matter what you do, you’ve got to have an outlet,” Brazier, 30, tells Rolling Stone.
Brazier wrestles as “Mr. Studtacular” Brysin Scott, a baby-oiled ladies’ man who oozes confidence and certainty in the ring. That self-assured stud is fictional but it’s also the part of Brazier he wishes he had back: the guy who isn’t scared of fireworks, who never keeps his back to the door, whose mind doesn’t go blank every time a phone buzzes with a text message.
“I get to be somebody else and get away from what’s going on,” he says. “It just relaxes me.”
The escapism is only half the battle, though. Even for Ohrstrom, 36, who plays a Chris Jericho-like rock star in the ring. Ohrstrom says that simply walking to the ring is like a “whole other mountain to climb” for someone with PTSD. He and Wittern both suffer from heavy anxiety when they’re around large crowds. They describe performing in front of fans as “immersion therapy.”
“When you’re in a pro wrestling crowd, they’re all focused on you,” Wittern says. “ (At a wrestling show) you’re the center of attention, it’s like, ‘Everybody look at me!’ and I’m dealing with my anxiety in this public way. I have to not be inside of myself. I have to be extroverted. I put myself in situations where I feel uncomfortable, so I can get better.”
Wittern, Ohrstrom, Brazier, and countless other veterans have been left to fend for themselves in many ways, they three men said. No one understands the things they saw, and even other veterans had different experiences which affected them all in different ways. Plus, Ohrstrom says, the way U.S. military handles out-processing its PTSD victims is a “let down.”
“They just pushed me aside,” Ohrstrom says. “They pushed a lot of people aside. That ended up causing an epidemic of veteran suicides because they were just getting cast aside without resources.”
Approximately 18.5 million military veterans live in the United States today, according to the 2016 American Community Survey, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates veterans are 22 percent more likely to commit suicide than other U.S. citizens. A 2012 VA report said 22 veterans committed suicide each day, though that number is likely a bit high.
“That’s not made up,” Dr. John Markowitz, a PTSD expert with Columbia University, explains. “It’s a major problem. It’s not just the Middle East veterans, although there’s almost three million of them, but veterans from all the wars tend to be at risk for suicide.”
All three men – Wittern, Ohrstrom and Brazier – have at least one friend from Iraq who’s committed suicide.
“That’s exactly who I’d like to reach out to,” Brazier says. He wants to take the Valhalla Club on tour, wrestling at bases across the country, doing post-show motivational speeches and connecting with other veterans. They filmed an eponymous documentary in which they discuss their readjustment issues and how pro wrestling helped ease their trauma.
They’ve hosted public viewings for the documentary, held discussion sessions and continue reaching out to fans at events where their post-show interactions usually end positively: handshakes, hugs, exchanging Facebook info. Though Wittern’s nontraditional, shake-the-beehive approach can sometimes backfire.
Back in the Mineral Wells legion hall parking lot, an irate vet wants to fight Wittern for insulting the military during the show. Wittern keeps trying to explain that he’s a veteran himself and he’d like to explain himself, but the angry vet won’t listen. Eventually the man’s friend talks him down and they leave.
“Maybe I need to tweak something,” Wittern says, chalking the interaction up to the veteran just not being ready to listen and get help. “You can piss somebody off and they’ll engage, but then you can piss somebody off and they want to fight you. It’s about finding the balance.”
It’s also about reaching who you can, he says. Even if the Valhalla Club only reaches one or two people, the men say it would make their time worth it. They’ve each lost so much – friends who’ve died overseas or taken their own lives, while they’ve survived and come back to a world thrown off balance – and they know that any ground gained is a victory in the battle against PTSD.
“This is a big thing to me,” Brazier says over the phone. He talks about upcoming matches, tryouts, ideas he has for new move sets and his new t-shirt design. He’s also cooking dinner for his wife and two kids. “It’s opened my eyes. It changed me completely. I realize what it did for me and now I want to help other people because of this.”