Clandestine Combat, Quesadilla Bribes, and Operation Jiujitsu Underground

“It is on the ship—assume you have it. We will find and beat this thing down.”

The alarming words from our skipper about Covid-19 aboard the USS Ronald Reagan caused a cascade of restrictions for our standard operating procedures while on deployment in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Snyder, you know what this means, right?” My jiujitsu rolling partner, Pat, said to me, loathing the inevitable.

“Yeah, man, looks like we won’t be rolling for a while.”

“No shit, bro! What the skipper is really saying is we won’t pull into Australia this year!”

Sailors made their own fun during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sailors made their own fun during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of the author.

Prior to deploying, we’d all gotten the Covid-19 vaccine (or faced administrative separation.) We hoped, naively, that when the whole ship was vaccinated, we’d pull into port. I’d been the first in line for every round of the Moderna vaccine—no way was I going to miss out on the port call in Australia. So when our captain laid out the reality of our situation over the 1-MC, we were crushed.

Following the skipper’s announcement, rigid sanctions fell upon the ship to limit the spread of Covid-19. Still confused, I told my leadership, “If we’re all vaccinated, that means we have protection from the virus. So why are we living like Azkaban prisoners?”

I was clearly frustrated with the situation, so much so that I asked a boatswain’s mate first class to provide a thorough answer to a question that even the National Institutes of Health couldn’t answer.

Several weeks passed, and I was fed up. “No one is fucking sick!” I said to Pat.

“I know, man, but what can we do? The mats are locked up and we can’t roll on nonskid. We aren’t even supposed to be in the berthing right now.”

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That got my wheels turning.

“I have an idea, bro.” I told him about a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation shirt that was given to me for a volunteer event. “If I go to the office, I may be able to convince them to give me the keys to the equipment locker.”

“So you are going to steal a mat?” Pat asked.

“No, man, I am going to borrow the mat,” I told him.

This was risky. I could be subject to captain’s mast if I got caught, so I had to conduct some recon. I decided I would stop by the MWR office occasionally just to ask if there were any updates to the status of gym restrictions. Of course, I knew nothing would change from day to day, but this provided important information, such as who was working, what times senior leadership was present, and who was the most agreeable.

I became friends with a QM3 who was temporarily assigned to the MWR. He and I would shoot the shit and I would bring him quesadillas, a highly coveted item typically only prepared for officers and chiefs. I understood he was not the most dutiful sailor on the ship, and his desire for quesadillas was unceasing.

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I pitched my idea to him about procuring a mat from the locker. He considered the risk, and then made a request. “All right, bro, I’ll give you the keys, but you have to bring me a quesadilla for every week you keep the mat.”

It was a done deal. This was not a problem for me—I had several friends who were culinary specialists in the wardroom and one of them was part of the jiujitsu cohort. I explained that the mat came with a renter’s fee, and one of them eagerly agreed to provide the quesadilla restitution.

The following day at 0000, I put on my MWR polo, picked up the keys, and conducted my covert operation. I stowed the mat in an equipment locker until we found a place to practice. I picked up the J-dial and got in touch with Pat.

When Covid-19 put an end to sanctioned jiujitsu aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, Mario Snyder and his friends took it underground. Photo courtesy of the author.

When Covid-19 put an end to sanctioned jiujitsu aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, Mario Snyder and his friends took it underground. Photo courtesy of the author.

“I got it, bro. Do you have a spot?”

“Holy shit, OK, man,” he said. He didn’t but knew someone who did.

“The bomb storage below deck,” Pat said.

To Pat, almost everything was “below deck.” He worked on one of the highest levels of the ship. So I jokingly called our unofficial club “The Jiujitsu Underground.”

Pat’s contact supported the idea and provided us with the space. It was far from ideal—the space we rolled in had limited ventilation and we were deep in the South China Sea. Needless to say, it was hotter than the devil’s sauna in that space, but we were grateful for the opportunity to roll.

Every week as promised, I paid the “The Jiujitsu Underground” debt to QM3. I knew that everyone associated with the cohort had skin in the game, so I was never concerned about our operation.

The underground was thriving amidst the tightening restrictions on the ship. I began to hear rumors on the mess decks about a “fight club.” Although the rumor alarmed me, clearly people did not have an understanding of our operation. My department knew I was exercising to some degree because I returned to the berthings in the evening drenched in sweat and clearly exhausted. This raised some eyebrows, but the prying questions were quickly dismissed due to the extreme heat of our area of responsibility.

The grand majority of the ship’s crew was seeking respite from boredom. The buzz of the ship’s fight club started gaining more traction in the mess decks, but then I started to hear the keyword “jiujitsu.” I, of course, kept my mouth shut and denied knowing anything about the topic.

Mario Snyder got his hands on a rolling mat like this one during the pandemic by providing quesadillas to the quartermaster who had access to them. Photo courtesy of the author.

Mario Snyder got his hands on a rolling mat like this one during the pandemic by providing quesadillas to the quartermaster who had access to them. Photo courtesy of the author.

The following week the skipper put out another announcement. “We need to continue to have respect for our adversaries, respect for our shipmates, and respect for the sea. I am hearing mutterings from senior leadership that we are not meeting that standard. It is imperative that we continue to follow Covid mandates to fulfill our nation’s mission. If you are caught in violation of the mandates. …”

“Shit—what are we going to do, Pat?”

“What we have been doing.”

“Well, what if we get caught?”

“What about it?”

“Dude, we will get fucking masted and put on restriction.”

“Looks like we just can’t get caught.”

It did not seem like a great idea to continue with our club, especially after the announcement from the captain. But the boredom after several weeks out to sea made us desperate. We decided we would continue rolling despite the warning.

AO1 was also concerned, as he was incurring the greatest risk. He was a leading petty officer in his division and had a family. He recommended that we lay low and take the week off, and we all agreed. That had to be the longest seven days of eternity.

After a week of our rolling abstinence, we were all eager to get back on the mat. AO1 gave us the green light and we resumed our training. However, we endeavored to be more covert. We would arrive in the uniform of the day and bring our physical training clothes with us in a black trash bag. This was especially necessary as the commanding officer now ordered the ship’s security team to man watch stations 24/7 in the hallways hoping to discover the violators. If we happened to get stopped on the way to jiujitsu, we would simply say we were taking out the trash for the night. Several sailors were scrutinized for being in PT clothes after 2200, then stood in their dress uniforms for Captain’s mast the next day.

Enough sailors were getting caught that mutterings of a fight club fizzled out. After several weeks of “The Jiujitsu Underground” going undiscovered, the witch hunt died.

Mario Snyder couldn’t let a thing like a global pandemic put an end to practicing jiujitsu. Photo courtesy of the author.

Mario Snyder couldn’t let a thing like a global pandemic put an end to practicing jiujitsu. Photo courtesy of the author.

We were about halfway through our deployment—it was day 77 out to sea—when I was approached by an O-3. He walked towards me with a smile. I expected him to ask me about the nearest head, so I was jolted when he casually asked, “Hey man, you’re Mario, right?”

On the ship, I was rarely addressed by first name, especially not by an officer, so I was immediately alarmed. Still, I managed to respond without hesitation.

“Yes, sir.”

“No need to call me sir. My name is Dan. I heard that you run a jiujitsu club.”

My heart was beating out of my chest like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff. I figured the pilot was trying to enhance his career by finding sailors violating the Covid-19 mandates. I once again responded quickly.

“Yes, sir, when we are in port, I attend Jiujitsu classes.”

This answer was perfect—it wasn’t a lie and did not incriminate me. Of course, he pried.

Practicing jiujitsu during Covid-19 restrictions was a risky business, but a group of sailors managed to pull it off. Photo courtesy of the author.

Practicing jiujitsu during Covid-19 restrictions was a risky business, but a group of sailors managed to pull it off. Photo courtesy of the author.

“Awesome, dude. I wrestled for the Air Force Academy and would love to do some grappling when you guys roll.”

Clearly, he hadn’t listened to my response to his initial question. I affirmed that I rolled jiujitsu while on shore and made no indication of any activities violating the Covid-19 mandates. He was not satisfied with my response, but I didn’t care. There was no way I was going to jeopardize my cohort.

I told him I was on my way to watch and respectfully disengaged from the conversation. Afterward, I immediately called Pat and asked him if he knew this particular lieutenant, and he responded that he had no clue who I was talking about.

“Fuck, man, they’re on to us.”

Later that evening, I again geared up to go roll and, in typical fashion, got my trash bag and PT clothes and departed for the bomb storage space. Once I entered our rolling area my heart sank in my stomach—Dan, the lieutenant I’d spoken with earlier in the day, was on the mat.

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He once again provided a cordial smile. “Hey, man, I thought you only rolled in port.”

At this point, I decided he was clearly not the Gestapo I thought he was, but I needed to guard our club. We proceeded to roll, and he demolished me on the mat. As a wrestler, he didn’t know any submissions. He outmaneuvered me on the mat and put me in a modified guillotine. His technique was poor, but his pressure and strength were tremendous. I tapped after several minutes of his attempt to separate my cranium from my torso.

We never did get caught.

Operation Jiujitsu Underground continued for all 153 days of that deployment, and it was exactly what we all needed.

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Mario L. Snyder

Mario L. Snyder is a Navy veteran and student at the University of California. He’s committed to a career in law driven by a desire to advocate for healthcare reform and provide representation for clients. He continues to practice jiujitsu and engage in various physical challenges. Mario values laughter as currency and finds great joy in the epic comedy of life's events. He's a die-hard Baltimore Orioles fan.

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