How three Iraq war veterans chase pro wrestling to break free of PTS

Matt Saintsing
October 08, 2018 - 3:27 pm

Photo by Tim Bear

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Professional wrestling offers spectators fleeting moments of entertainment, watching larger than life characters throw their weight and charisma around the ring. But for three Iraq veterans, it’s more than just entertainment; it represents life-long aspirations, and a chance to heal from their invisible scars of war. 

Jan Ohrstrom put his dream on hold following the terrorist attacks on September 11th and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Adjusting back to civilian life after war proved challenging. 

One brush with death came June 1st, 2004 on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Summerall just outside Bayji, Iraq. Ohrstrom, a .50 cal. machine gunner in a convoy exiting the FOB was met with a blue BMW filled with explosives trying to ram the gate. 

“The car bomb went off five feet from me, if it had gone off not even a minute earlier, it would have hit me,” he says. “Stuff like that really messed with me.”

Ohstrom says he struggled with post-traumatic stress (PTS).  
 

Photo Courtesy of Jan Ohstrom

When he returned home, working in corporate America wasn’t for him, surrounded by people who couldn’t understand what he went through isolating him even further. To cope, he drank. A lot. Far more than he should have. 

But while living with  PTS and memories from war, he chose to get back to what makes him happy: wrestling. “I wasn’t going to let my experiences in Iraq destroy me,” says Ohrstrom. 

Photo Courtesy of Jan Ohstrom

“As I was wrestling more and more, I was coming across veterans in the industry who have similar experiences,” he adds.

By 2013, just after World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) passed him over for the third time, he met Brysin Scott and Eddie Wittern, both veterans of Iraq. The three bonded over their shared understanding of war and the trauma they experienced. For Ohrstrom, it was continually being on patrol and losing friends to combat. Wittern, a combat medic who saw first hand the true costs of war, and Scott, who remembers the times he almost lost his own life, all realize just how important wrestling is to them. Not only professionally, but personally. 

As weird as it sounds, wrestling is therapeutic for the troika. To get to the top of any industry, you need to put in the work. For the world of professional wrestling, that means transforming into and maintaining peak physical performance, eating right, drinking less, and continuously promote yourself. 

Perhaps an unintended, yet nevertheless positive effect was getting into a routine where they could throw the seemingly never dry well of survivors guilt and symptoms of PTS into a decisive goal of seeing their names on the biggest marquis.

“I always thought there was some kind of cool story to tell about professional wrestling and veterans,” says Ohrstrom. “Pro-wrestling and the military go hand in hand.”

Ohrstrom spearheaded the idea for a short documentary and found a production company to greenlight the project. Their 41-minute film, “The Valhalla Club” showcases how wrestling helps them deal with returning from war. 

“I wanted to reach out and hopefully encourage other veterans to find a creative outlet, if they’re struggling,” he says. 

Photo by Tim Bear

 

For the audience, "The Valhalla Club" is an in-depth glance at what living with PTS is like for many veterans returning from war. 

For the trio, however, they’re blowing past the "broken veteran" narrative, and showing others they can be just as motivated and capable of achieving their dreams as anyone else. 

Click here to watch "The Valhalla Club." 

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