HUDSON In a 22-foot-diameter octagonal cage where kicks and punches are exchanged, Jeff Collins finds an escape from his pain.
Stalking his opponent, eyes fixed with concentration, Collins doesn't think about the soldiers who died beside him in an Iraqi firefight. He doesn't dwell on what might have been if post-traumatic stress disorder hadn't forced him from the Army.
Jabbing, ducking, swinging his feet in a roundhouse kick, his thoughts don't swing to the day his father killed himself in his house.
Here at Extreme MMA, a mixed martial arts academy run by an affable redhead from Massachusetts named Paul Mello, Collins allows his brain to think only about his training for an upcoming match in Orlando.
Mello built the gym in the middle of his father's junkyard, Hudson Salvage.
It's where Collins, 33, found salvation.
"Mixed martial arts has saved me," he said.
Jeff Collins, construction worker, became U.S. Army Sgt. Jeff Collins in July 2007 after returning from a tour in Afghanistan with the Florida National Guard. Collins enlisted after his job with a concrete pumping company ended.
Just as he received news that his first wife was filing for divorce, he was selected to be the "tip of the spear" on a mission to go after an al-Qaida leader. The man had massacred the family of a U.S.-friendly militia member in Diyala province, and Collins was tasked with kicking in the door on a payback raid.
He picked three guys — Pfc. Zachary Nordmeyer, Cpl. Michael Mayne and Spc. Michael Alleman — to be on his team.
"I knew they were reliable," said Collins, sitting on a chair in his Holiday home. "I knew they were the best of the best."
In the early hours of Feb. 23, 2009, Collins and the rest of his platoon, a couple dozen men, boarded choppers heading for the target. The raiding party entered the compound, but there were no insurgents, just an old man and a few women, Collins said.
A Predator drone overhead captured a different scene. The drone operators saw men run into the courtyard but not out.
"We knew they were there," Collins said. "We just didn't know where. The old man said no one was here, but he was lying to us."
Nordmeyer saw something that didn't look right. He picked up an ax and began hitting the ground. An indentation opened up, then a small hole.
Collins, who had a powerful flashlight attached to his M-4 combat rifle, pointed the barrel into the hole, his interpreter next to him.
"I flipped on the light," said Collins, "and then an instantaneous ba-pow."
An insurgent in the hole had shot the interpreter in the head.
Two holes opened up on each end of the courtyard, Collins said. Insurgents with belt-fed machine guns popped out and began firing.
"We were stuck," Collins said. "It was a meat grinder. They were shooting the place up."
Lt. Hans Rohr, the platoon leader, was shot in both hands. Just before getting to a mud wall for cover, Nordmeyer was hit.
"I went to go get him," said Collins, "but it was just bullets, a wall of bullets. I remember telling him, 'Hold on a minute; I'm going to come get you.'"
But the enemy gunfire was too fierce.
"He got shot two or three more times," said Collins, crying at the memory. "I just felt helpless. I was this big bad NCO that ruled with an iron fist, and everyone looked up to me. I was the go-to guy. I couldn't help him."
Enemy bullets began piercing the mud wall. Then the insurgents began lobbing grenades.
Mayne was killed. Minutes later, Alleman was dead, too.
Collins, alone now, kept firing. He remembers killing an insurgent who raced toward him but hesitated a second too long.
"I went through five 30-round magazines," he said.
Eventually a quick-reaction force arrived and rescued Collins, but not before almost killing him. A truck crashed through a wall, the bumper hitting his head.
Collins ended up in a truck with the other rescued soldiers. The men cried and hugged.
One of those men was Rohr, now a captain stationed in Hawaii.
"I was very concerned for his mental health," Rohr said. "He was very, very traumatized. "I told the medics, 'Make sure someone keeps an eye on him. He is not OK.' "
After the firefight, the Army career that Collins loved essentially was over.
"I didn't finish my tour," he said. "I started getting panic attacks, and they sent me to a combat stress unit."
He spent time in psychiatric units in Germany and Bethesda, Md. Finally, an Army medical board decided he no longer could serve. Collins was devastated.
"I didn't want to get out of the Army," he said. "I would still be in right now if they would let me."
About the same time, he was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions in the courtyard. At the ceremony, a general came up to Collins and said he saw the firefight on a video captured by the drone.
" 'You are one hard son of a bitch to kill,' " Collins said the general told him.
Before returning home to Holiday, Collins was kept for observation at an Army post-traumatic stress disorder center in Washington State.
"They wouldn't let me go back home," Collins said. "I was too unstable, having outbursts and anger. They were afraid I was going to go home and kill my ex."
When he first got home, Collins went through a "partying stage" and then withdrew. But in December, he met a woman on an online dating site who would become his second wife.
Andrea Collins said she didn't know anything about what happened in that courtyard in Diyala province until about a month after they started dating, when the new couple hosted a party for a cousin departing for Afghanistan.
"He drank too much, pulled a gun on himself and said he wanted to be with his boys," Andrea Collins said. "I sent everyone home, and he laid on the floor and spilled his guts."
Opening up did not change things for Collins.
"I felt ripped off because the Army took my job away," he said. "I was bitter."
One day in March 2010, Andrea Collins came home from work and found what looked like shredded paper all over the house.
"I had gotten drunk and shot the house up, all the pillows, shot holes in the wall," Jeff Collins said. "I probably shot off 40 or 50 rounds."
The next day, Andrea Collins took her then-boyfriend to the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, where he was put on more than a half-dozen medications.
But he still drank, often a case of beer a day. He ballooned to 250 pounds.
And he kept getting hit with bad news. His parents' 32-year marriage dissolved and his dad fell into an alcohol-fueled depression. Collins' downward spiral continued.
Then one day, the man who ran his PTSD group at the VA made a suggestion.
Try martial arts.
Collins went online and found Extreme MMA in Hudson.
He approached Mello in July 2010, told him about his past, that he was there on doctor's orders.
"I instantly clicked with the guys," he said. "The camaraderie reminded me of the military."
He stopped drinking, began training. Four months later, he entered his first tournament and won gold.
"That tournament changed my life," he said. "I felt like I was a winner again. In the Army I was a winner. I was the best at what I did. When I got out, I had no purpose. I just wanted to die."
After winning, Collins decided to live. He dropped 60 pounds. He entered four more tournaments, coming in first or second each time. He and Andrea married.
"I was transformed into the soldier I used to be," he said.
The resurgence didn't last . On Dec. 14, while sitting at home, Collins heard a loud "pop" coming from the room where his daughter, Savannah, stayed during visits.
His father had committed suicide.
"I pretty much lost it," Collins said.
He started drinking again. Quit training. Ballooned back up to 230 pounds. Stopped answering his phone.
Then one day in April, his 7-year-old daughter asked him a question that might have saved his life.
Daddy, why don't you fight anymore?
"She used to go to the tournaments and watched me win," Collins said.
Collins went back to Extreme MMA and once again threw himself into training. In a few weeks, he competed in an April tournament in Orlando, taking second place.
The weight started to come off again. The drinking stopped.
Collins still has issues. Loud noises startle him. Something as innocuous as a garbage bag in the road will cause him to veer into oncoming traffic. But for the most part, his life is back on track.
Which is why he wants to tell his story.
"I want other veterans out there dealing with this to know that I have PTSD," Collins said. "PTSD does not have me anymore."
With Mello yelling instructions, Collins practices his technique for the upcoming tournament in Orlando.
"He looks pretty good," Mello said.
Collins is confident he will do well. To show why, he lifts up his sweat-drenched T-shirt to show off the tattoo underneath.
"Hard To Kill" is inked across his back, just below his shoulders.
It is, he says, his motto.
"I am a survivor," he said. "The other guy doesn't stand a chance."