Whittier, Calif. — The first time Army veteran Nicholas Illanes saw a mixed martial arts fight on TV, he said he feel in love with the sport.
“I first found the love for MMA watching Ken Shamrock back in the early 90-s when he fought Royce Gracie,” said Illanes, 28.
When he was growing up in Orange, Calif., he started to train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a self-defense technique that focuses on grappling and especially ground fighting.
Illanes continued to improve his skills in the sport and eventually got the chance of a lifetime at age 18 to train at the gym of Tito Ortiz, one of MMA’s stars. “I met Tito in Huntington Beach and he told me to come by the gym. MMA has always been a part of my life and it has been the healthiest part of my life since I was little,” Illanes said.
But his MMA training was put on hold when he decided to join the Army when he turned 22. “I was glad I joined because it gave me strength and a lot of discipline. I thought, ‘Hey the military would be a good break,’ not knowing how crazy the military was schedule-wise and the commitment I was setting myself up for,” Illanes said.
He served in the Army for three years as a Fire Support Specialist with the 1st Cavalry Division and was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas. “What brought me to the Army was my desire to serve, to do something bigger and better than just a regular job. I wanted to do something big and exciting,” said Illanes, who was deployed to Iraq in 2009.
He spent 13 months in the Kirkuk area. During a routine combat patrol mission at night with five other soldiers, their Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) was hit by an improvised explosive device. “Our vehicle was disabled and when they came to recover us our second vehicle was hit again. We took fire for a couple of hours but we got everything under control and back to base. That was a really scary experience but it is over,” Illanes said. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, hearing loss and was diagnose with tinnitus, the medical term for ringing in the ears.
Upon his return to the U.S., Illanes left the Army five month later in May 2011. He said he was ready to move on and go on to the next phase of his life but he still carried scars from his tour of duty. “My injuries weren’t so much physical. The real damage from that night didn’t happen until I was exiting the Army and I was really analyzing where my life was and what I’ve been through and that’s when everything became real.
Before it was like a video game. I didn’t seem real while I was there. I didn’t get to feel any of those human emotions until I got back,” Illanes said. His transition to civilian life was a bit rough at first, he said. “I had a hard time integrating myself. I struggled with alcohol dependency,” he said. Then one day at home watching Ultimate Fighting Championship matches, he saw a commercial talking about The Mission Continues. “It said pretty much everything I wanted to hear. I went online and their values pretty much fell in line with everything I needed in my life at the time,” he said.
He was awarded a fellowship with The Mission Continues at Black Mat Mixed Martial Arts Gym, a nonprofit gym serving at-risk youth in Whittier, Calif. Through his work there, Nick is able to help build kids’ confidence while teaching them discipline and respect. “The kids are 100% listening to me not because they’re scared but they’re listening to me because they want to learn. They love it. You can see they love MMA so much that they forget about their insecurities and everything they’re afraid of. I get to see how much they appreciate it,” Illanes said.
The Mission Continues is a national nonprofit organization that empowers veterans to serve their country in new ways and they have helped thousands of post-9/11 veterans focus their talents and energy to tackle challenges facing us right here at home. Since Mixed Martial Arts is a passion for Illanes, he use that to serve his community. “I selected Black Mat MMA because I knew that I had something to offer them and because it was for disadvantaged youth. That’s what really brought me in,” Illanes said.
Through his service, Illanes said he has regained a sense of purpose and meaning. “It is so rewarding. It took this to get me off the couch and out of bed and not being that depressed person and to be worth something. Being there for them is what does it for me,” he said. For Illanes, the most important part of teaching MMA to children is building confidence. They need someone to talk to, to teach them right and wrong, he said. “A lot of these kids don’t have that person to tap them on the shoulder and say ‘Watch what you’re doing.’ It means a lot to me that my time here isn’t wasted.”
The fellowship has also helped Illanes accomplish some of his goals. “My whole dream coming out of the military was to open an MMA dojo that is nonprofit — just make enough money to keep the doors open and that’s everything I wanted,” said Illanes, who is hoping to open up his own gym this summer.
Second Tour is an ABC News digital series profiling the lives of military veterans who are doing unique things in the civilian world. For more stories, click here.
ABC News’ Video Editor Arthur Niemynski contributed to this story.