Here's what has changed, and what has been learned.Read article
You won’t see Brian Stann strutting around town wearing the Silver Star he was awarded for gallantry in action during combat in Iraq in 2005. This Marine wears modesty better.
Stann takes more pride in the fact that all 42 of the Marines in his platoon survived a harrowing six-day battle, due largely to their mythical ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome, and in part to their relentless dedication to maintaining strength and conditioning.
“The Marine Corps wants you to do things when you’re tired,” Stann says. “It puts pressure on you. When you’re run down, you don’t want to shoot straight, you don’t want to do this or that. But when you’re fatigued in combat, you still have to operate efficiently. So our workouts are tough. It’s about shared misery, shared sacrifice, and shared suffering, because that’s what war is. Every single Marine can understand that he has to do this for the guy next to him, at the very least.”
War put fitness into perspective for Stann, but the Pennsylvania native prided himself on physical excellence long before he was leading some of the world’s toughest men into battle. And in the years after leaving active duty, he marched boldly into the Octagon, for combat of a different sort. For Stann, in one way or another, punishing, character-defining workouts have always been about survival.
Stann, 32, played ironman football (offense and defense) for Scranton Prep School, but was primarily known for his athletic dominance at quarterback, where he set school marks for passing and rushing. Then, in the first game of his senior season, he dislocated his throwing shoulder, forcing him out of the pocket and onto the line. Despite the injury and the fulltime move to defense, he received serious recruiting overtures from Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale. Stann, however, had a different destiny, and enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.
After four years of suiting up at outside linebacker for the Midshipmen, Stann graduated from the Academy and headed to Quantico, VA, for Marine Corps Officer Candidates School. As a high-scoring officer-in training, when it came to selecting his military occupational specialty, or MOS, he had plenty of options.
“Infantry was the only place I belonged,” says Stann of his decision to pursue the most hazardous job available. “The training is really difficult. And even when you’re not deployed, you’re out in the field—no showers, out training all week. As an athlete, you’re used to making sure people are accountable for their assignments. A lot of your maneuver warfare is similar to what you’re doing in football. It was considered the toughest way to go, and for my buddies and me, that was part of the attraction.”
By now, he was accustomed to intense training—but nothing could have prepared him for the physical rigors of the months ahead.
“There was lots of field time, very little sleep, and very little food,” Stann says of his eight-week stay at Quantico. Desert training in Twentynine Palms, CA—home of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center—was next, followed by one of the most grueling assignments in the military: mountain warfare training in Bridgeport, CA. With elevations reaching 11,000 feet and temps falling below freezing, Bridgeport offers a stiff wakeup call for Marines who previously flourished in more temperate weather.
“You really appreciate how detailed you need to be as a leader in that kind of climate,” Stann says. “You’re in snowshoes. Normally, in full gear, hiking three miles will take about 50 minutes. In Bridgeport, that could take four to five hours. But when you move you start to sweat, so you stop to take of some clothes, then hydrate, then layer up again so you don’t freeze. Your feet can go to hell in a handbasket quick.”
Stann, at the time a second lieutenant, and his men had a relatively quiet go of things when they first arrived in Iraq in 2005.
“We were doing searches, working with certain populations, and we’d do three or four days out in the field, then come back on base for two or three days,” he says. But no forward-deployed Marine spends much time relaxing. “Back on base, we’d do physical training. We had a nice makeshift weight room and a huge open field where we’d do martial arts training.”
Keeping physically sharp via structured PT time was required for Marines between assignments, he says. The training, however, was specific to what Stann expected his men to encounter in the field—which, in the urban maelstrom of Iraq, made long runs and calisthenics obsolete.
“You’ve got to have legitimate strength and conditioning training out there,” he says. “But these guys were in pretty good shape. They were all strong. They weren’t just guys who could run five or six miles. Marines need to be able to have their heart rate elevate to above 160 then bring it down to a normal level. In the field, guys would sprint, then shoot or rig an explosive to blow a door and sprint back to cover. When you’re in a firefight, it’s a fight to this corner, then a fight to that corner. Then you jump on a vehicle. All this equipment and ammo is heavy. So the Corps is very serious about physical fitness. On a normal day at work, you’re going to have one to two hours dedicated solely to that.”
His men would conduct what are called LZ drills—military jargon for circuit-style workouts—performed in the base’s landing zone. This usually called for multiple stations of body-weight and/or plyometric exercises (think: partner squats, fireman carries, and leap frog) done for stretches of two to five minutes each.
“We’d do it all with body armor on,” Stann says. “It’s all sprint-based. And when you move between exercises, your heart rate might get up to 180, then you’ve got to calm it down to around 130. You have to be in a certain kind of condition to maintain that. It’s grueling.”
Stann, who’d been bitten by the combat bug in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), would then have his men grapple for four or five 3-minute rounds.
“This wasn’t just to get in shape,” he says. “This was your indoctrination into violence. When you randomly put a guy in front of you and you have to grapple, it’s nerve-racking because you don’t want to lose. Getting used to that anxiety is great.”
In May of 2005, Stann’s men—in country for only a little more than two months by then—graduated from exchanging small-arms fire to an all-out clash with a determined insurgent force near Karabilah.
“Iraq is not a huge country,” Stann says. “[Our forces were] doing large-scale ops in the center of Iraq and we were out in the forgotten western lands. We were spread so thin for such a huge area of operations. We had barely any assets. After two months, they’d pushed a lot of the enemy out to our area where they felt safer because there weren’t a lot of Marines operating there. We expected it to get worse. We expected to run into the enemy. But what kind?”
They soon got their answer: A well-armed enemy, thought to be the security force of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq—would claim the lives of nine Marines in a battle that lasted 11 days. Stann’s platoon directed tank and aerial fire and helped pull injured Marines from harm’s way while dodging gunfire and enduring vehicle-based suicide bombers for six days, helping to ensure mission success. Stann has always defected credit toward the men under his command, for both their courage and their dedication to physical fitness. The stamina required to perform under duress for so long is woven into each Marine’s DNA and reinforced by one strenuous workout after another. Fatigue was never an option.
In the years after that battle, Stann dove headlong into competitive mixed martial arts. “When I found the [Marine Corps Martial Arts] program, I saw that some of these techniques I was learning were very practical in combat,” he says. “For my gray-belt training, I was learning arm bars and other moves. I saw some UFC films, and was a junkie from that point on. I was training every morning at 5:30—then I won my first fight, and I was hooked.”
In competition, he scored six straight wins, five of those coming in the WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting). His sixth win—a first-round knockout of Doug Marshall—earned him the WEC Light Heavyweight crown.
Stann moved to the UFC when it added his weight class in 2008. In the years after, he went toe-to-toe with some of the sport’s best, including Chael Sonnen, Chris Leben, Michael Bisping, and Wanderlei Silva.
But for Stann, married with children, the Octagon—like the dusty battlefields of the Middle East—eventually lost its luster. Though he continues to train, he retired officially in July 2013 with a final pro record of 12–6.
“I don’t think my fight career has gone as far as I would have liked for it to go, but I’m 32, I have a third kid on the way, and I’ve had the opportunity to fight some of the best guys in the world,” he says. “I never thought I’d get to this point. It’s really cool for me.”
This past summer, Stann signed a deal with Fox Sports South to serve as an on-air analyst for ACC football games. His main focus, however, will be as CEO of Hire Heroes (hireheroesusa.org), an organization that helps veterans and their spouses transition back into the workforce.
“Right now, we have the largest return from service since World War II, into the worst economy since that time,” he says. “These men and women gain skill sets that are invaluable but difficult to translate into civilian language. We help them do that.” Stann wants every man and woman returning from combat to enjoy the freedom and success he or she deserves. Each day, the concussions of exploding ordnance and the roars of fans in crowded arenas fade from Stann’s consciousness, echoes of an old life devoted to combat. In his new life, he fights a different fight.