Marines rarely engage enemies in hand-to-hand combat, but it does happen.
To prepare them for such a fight, Marines go through the Corps' martial arts program.
Insider recently observed the brutal test Marines must pass to become martial arts instructors.
A Marine Corps martial arts instructor recently told Insider that if a Marine is engaged in hand-to-hand combat in a combat theater environment, then things have really hit the fan.
Having to put hands on an enemy is uncommon, but it does happen, as some Marines have demonstrated during modern combat deployments overseas.
Navy Cross recipient Cpl. Clifford Wooldridge, for instance, battled a Taliban insurgent in hand-to-hand combat in Afghanistan after shooting two others. Having run out of ammo with no time to reload when a third fighter appeared, he dropped his gun, wrestled the man's machine gun from him, and bashed him in the head repeatedly with it, killing him.
And Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Dakota Meyer also fought with an insurgent in Afghanistan, according to some accounts of his actions there. Meyer has written that he beat his enemy to death with a stone during the fight.
To prepare Marines for dangerous moments like these, the Corps puts them through the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.
MCMAP is a combat-tested, weapons-based hand-to-hand combat program created by Marines for Marines to introduce them to interpersonal violence and ready them for the brutality of the battlefield, be it a gunfight or fistfight, in a controlled training environment.
"We teach everything," Staff Sgt. Chase Enfinger, a martial arts instructor trainer, told Insider, explaining that the program draws techniques from Taekwondo, Karate, Jujitsu, and various other combat arts.
"We try to give the Marines all the tools they could possibly need for whatever situation they might run into," he said.
Insider recently observed the final test Marines must pass to become martial arts instructors during a visit to Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. It was a grueling test of their fighting skills.
This challenge was done in full gear and involved fight after fight, putting them through everything from ground fighting in cold water to bayonet combat in a smoke-filled forest, as can be seen in the following photos and videos.
It tested their fortitude, resilience, and ability to hold their own in a life-or-death fight. They were pitted against different opponents with and without weapons, forced to fight in undesirable environments, and pushed to fight through exhaustion.
"It is a mental and physical challenge, but that is the job as Marines," Capt. John Robinson, one of the martial arts instructor students, told Insider, adding that Marines are expected "to push beyond their preconceived limits and continue to fight."
'Tap into the combat mindset'
Early in the morning on November 4, 2021, around two dozen Marines, a mixture of students and instructors, climbed aboard two large trucks and drove out into the woods. The sun was just starting to rise when they stopped at a trailhead, and the temperature outside was somewhere in the low-to mid 30s.
Immediately after exiting the vehicles, the students were ordered to run over to a large mud puddle. That was where they fought first, in frigid muddy water.
The instructors popped a few smoke grenades, releasing clouds of yellow smoke meant to simulate the fog and chaos of war, and called the students two at a time into the mud to fight, to struggle for the dominant position from which they could deliver a killing blow, just as they would in combat.
"As close as we can get to the real thing, that's what we would like them to go through," Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Lankenau, the mixed martial arts program chief, told Insider.
Because even with the technology and everything else, "there is still that chance that you will round a corner and suddenly be face to face with a guy and have to put your hands on him," he said.
Staff Sgt. Demetrius Thigpen, another martial arts instructor trainer, explained that "by putting them in these situations, Marines are able to tap into the combat mindset," telling Insider that the Marines must be able to pull that "mental trigger needed to be able to kill your aggressor."
Most people have never been in a fight before or may have only done fighting sports, and that is no different for many members of the armed forces.
"When you are on the battlefield, it is not a sport anymore. It is life or death," Cpl. Michael McVicker, a martial arts instructor student, said, telling Insider that they "need to be killers and be able to turn that on in combat."
McVicker added that Marines also need to have the control to "be able to turn that off and keep the peace" outside of combat, which is something that also requires training and discipline to avoid unnecessarily escalating a situation.
A couple of the Marines Insider spoke with revealed that while they have not used lethal martial arts techniques in combat, they have used non-lethal force, essentially compliance techniques, to resolve situations in the US.
'Any weapon to kill the enemy'
The fighting in the mud was the start of a tough three-hour training event involving a five-mile run interspersed with strenuous exercise, simulated artillery barrages, and sparring.
After the ground fighting, the next stop was bayonet combat, where the Marines used wooden rifles called mokujus to practice thrusting a blade into or slashing at vital parts of the body, the head being a priority target.
The fights with weapons were faster than the unarmed fights, often ending in seconds.
"I can't afford to not try to end the fight as quickly as possible," Enfinger explained, telling Insider that there is a good chance that "if you take even one of these strikes, it's over. You don't get to help your buddy, and you don't get to go home."
Further down the trail, the Marines moved on to fighting with weapons of opportunity, which one of the Marines explained "could be anything."
"It could be a stick, could be a broken rifle, could be a bar that's on the battlefield," he said. "A weapon of opportunity is anything you see on the battlefield that gives you the tactical advantage."
Armed with batons intended to simulate an elongated weapon like a pipe, the Marines dropped into a creek filled again with yellow smoke. As their instructors screamed and shouted, they charged one another, striking hard and fast with techniques derived from stick fighting.
"We have them use the baton, but it is principally supposed to simulate anything you could grab to utilize as a weapon and kill the opponent," Lankenau said.
Reflecting on the program, Robinson said that one of the more important lessons it teaches is how "to use any weapon to your advantage," "any weapon to kill the enemy."
But just because a Marine has a weapon and knows how to use it, it is important they remember to use everything available to them in an engagement.
"They have their other hand, kicks, terrain they can use to their advantage," Lankenau said. On more than one occasion during the fights, the Marines shoved their opponent into the banks of the creek, using that momentary shock to gain an edge.
"Utilize all available resources," Lankenau said. "Like the lead hand, use it to feint or do something like a palm strike before following through with the weapon."
Moving on from the weapon of opportunity combat, the Marines fought in the smoky woods with training knives simulating a weapon that every Marine carries on their person in combat and must know how to use.
"The biggest rule in a knife fight is that you have to understand that you are going to get cut," Lankenau said. "The important thing to do then, just like the weapons of opportunity, is to control the opponent's weapon as fast and quickly as you can."
"Getting cut doesn't mean you are going to die," he said, adding that the "goal is to get through that, fight, and kill the opponent with a knife."
Lankenau explained that although the martial arts training Marines go through is extensive, it is not exhaustive.
"We are not trying to train to defeat every single person in the world, the special forces and elite level knife experts," he said.
"We are just trying to give Marines the tools, tips, and skills that they can sustain on their own time, progress, and eventually get to the point where they can defeat an opponent in a combative environment - the gen[eral] pop[ulation] soldier, the insurgent, the guy you meet around the corner."
'No such thing as a fair fight'
Between each of the combat events, the Marines ran and completed challenging physical tasks, such as squad push-ups, buddy deadlifts, burpees, and team sit-ups.
"All that movement takes its toll on them. It wears them down," Lankenau said.
In battle, getting to a fight may be an exhausting endeavor in and of itself, but when the Marines get there, they still have to be ready for whatever the situation is, be it trading fire with the enemy or fighting him in hand-to-hand combat.
And there is no expectation of fair play or that the enemy will let you rest.
"Once you get in combat, there is no such thing as a fair fight. There is no level battlefield. It's chaos," McVicker said. That is what Marines have to be ready to face even when they are tired and worn out.
They have to be able to think through the fight and make those decisions critical to surviving it.
"There's a million things," McVicker said when asked what runs through his mind during a fight. "You're looking at your opponent's stance, where their weapon is if they have a weapon, you're looking at their posture, you're watching their shoulder movement to be able to counterattack against their attacks."
"At the same time," he further explained, "you're worried about your balance, your position," and so on.
After the knife fighting, the Marines worked their way through a lengthy obstacle course, which was then followed by a few more rounds of ground fighting, no easy task after hours of running, exercising, and fighting.
"You dig in through willpower and you utilize what you care about, and that's your Marine to the right and left of you" McVicker said, explaining that they have to be good at what they do so they can be there for their fellow Marines when they need.
"You are not just fighting for your own life. You are fighting for your buddy's life," he said. "So you use that heart and that willpower, and that's how you fight through the fatigue."
The instructors told Insider that one of the hardest things to teach in the program is heart.
"Anybody can be taught techniques," Thigpen said. "But if you are not prepared to actually get in there and fight, then it's all pointless."
An outstanding fighter, Enfinger said, is not necessarily the person who is quickest or punches hardest.
"It is someone that is resilient, someone that is willing to deal with the friction and has a willingness to win, someone that is, at the same time, willing to apply these things for the preservation of life, whether that is their own, the Marines, or an innocent," he said.
The difficult test ended with close-quarters fighting in a small shack, during which the Marines received their new belts. The next day, these Marines officially graduated as martial arts instructors.