“Pro wrestling found me. It grabbed me. It’s always been in my life at the right time, giving me something to look forward to.”
Jan Ohrstrom refused to end his life with a gun.
The celebrated U.S. war veteran, who was honorably discharged in 2006 after five years of service in the Iraq War, excelled in combat with a 50-caliber machine gun. But there was for no honor for a marksman in killing himself with a self-inflicted gunshot.
“I came to the conclusion that it was time to check out,” said the 36-year-old Ohrstrom.
The 6’4”, 250-pounder, who rose to Sergeant in the U.S. Army, recalled his most haunting moment, which occurred 11 years ago in March of 2007.
“Sitting by myself at two in the morning, 14 beers in, surrounded by cigarettes, I felt so hollow,” said Ohrstrom. “I was done with constantly reliving all the dead bodies, I was done with all the pain and all the anguish.”
Survivor’s guilt crippled Ohrstrom, the once fearless combat war soldier, to the point where he decided suicide was the most effective remedy to heal his deep internal wounds.
Yet, in his moment of despair, a lifeline was thrown to Ohrstrom.
Ohrstrom thought back to the age of four. He was playfully teasing his two-year-old sister, so his mother scooped him up and plopped him onto the couch. They turned on the television, finding the only channel that came in clearly, and Ohrstrom instantly found himself mesmerized by the large-bellied man on the screen with black tights covered in yellow polka dots. His mother couldn’t pry him away by the time Hulk Hogan appeared on camera.
Two-and-a-half decades later, on the precipice of taking his place within the frightening epidemic of soldiers who commit suicide, Ohrstrom realized there was one way to save himself. He needed to fully embrace his goal of becoming a pro wrestler.
“Pro wrestling found me,” said Ohrstrom. “It grabbed me. When I was in such a dark place, the demands and art of pro wrestling really forced me to shift my focus and mentality into ways that were no longer self-destructive. It’s always been in my life at the right time, giving me something to look forward to.”
Ohrstrom is an expert on war, knowing all too well that a lone soldier is always outnumbered in battle.
He needed backup to pursue his wrestling dreams, which he found in the Valhalla Club.
Pro wrestling – which is ridiculed as fake and phony – has served as a reason to live for Ohrstrom, Eddie Wittern, and John Brazier.
“Valhalla” represents the men and women who died in combat service fighting for their country.
“In war, it is common to say until ‘Valhalla’ when going on a mission,” said Ohrstrom. “It means that if someone were to die, they would see them in heaven in preparation for the final battle of Good and Evil.”
The three combat war vets created the Valhalla Club for a creative outlet. They channel their aggression and negativity from the war into their workouts, in-ring training, and fine-tuning their wrestling characters.
“That’s why I wear clown paint in the ring,” said Wittern, who is able to expose his vulnerabilities far easier in a four-sided ring than he ever could on a therapist’s couch. “I’m ‘The Joker’ coupled with a PTSD victim. That’s why I’m wearing clown paint. I might not physically have scars on my body, but they’re there.”
Wittern, 34, is medically retired from the army. He wrestles as Eddie “El Guero” Scott, and he is also a mixed martial artist who specializes in jiu-jitsu. Unlike the affable Ohrstrom, he plays a villain in wrestling, which is often how he feels in society.
“When my friends were killed in Iraq, the world kept spinning,” said Wittern. “I wanted to harness the stereotypes and turn it around back onto the fans. To break their heroes in front of them.
“I’m admitting to the world that I’m weak. At least that’s how it is perceived. It’s been a long process to admit I have a problem, and another process for me to do something about it instead of just carrying it around.”
Ohrstrom and Wittern teamed up with fellow combat vet John Brazier to create The Valhalla Club documentary, which follows the three men through their journey as they harness the pro wrestling lifestyle to deal with the demons of war. The documentary is not for the light of heart, detailing issues with anger, relationships, death, and suicide all while illuminating how a creative outlet is essential to readjusting to society after war.
In addition to pursuing their pro wrestling dreams, all three are actively working to reduce and eliminate the unacceptable number of veterans taking their own lives after combat.
“I was already wrestling before my military service,” said Brazier, who transforms into “Mr. Studtacular” Brysin Scott in the ring. “After I served, I started to spiral downhill, and I needed to channel all that negative energy somewhere else.”
Brazier was capable and confident when battling ISIS, but struggled with the harsh reality of readjusting to everyday life when he no longer wore fatigues.
“The ‘Mr. Studtacular’ character allows me to be creative with my PTSD,” said Brazier, who at 29 is the youngest of the group. “I’m able to be creative, and I’ve realized I can help others. I hate seeing the divide-and-conquer mentality that is everywhere. There are so many people that suffer from PTSD, so my feeling is let’s help as many people as we can.”
The documentary allows the outside world a behind-the-curtain look at life post-war. To these men, the scripted nature of pro wrestling is more real than reality. Pro wrestling has provided a different framework for their PTSD, giving them a chance to direct their negative energy.
“Everyone has something they love, that they’re drawn to,” said Ohrstrom, who is known as ‘Dynamite’ in the ring. “Go after it. If it’s a hobby, incorporate it into your life. It’s going to help you fight your battle. I’ve seen so many others go another way and take their lives. So embrace it, don’t ever walk away from it.”
Ohrstrom and his Valhalla Club partners aspire to one day step into a WWE ring, or even working a six-man tag during a WrestleMania weekend, but that is far from their only goal.
A stigma exists that veterans cannot contribute to society, and they are fighting like soldiers to prove otherwise.
“You need an outlet when you come back instead of pills and self-loathing,” said Ohrstrom, who owns his own shirt company called Scars and Stripes. “For a lot of us, suicide is the only way out.
“I just kept watching as the veteran suicide epidemic continued to get out of hand, and that combined with the struggles in my own life. But I turned to pro wrestling, and that’s what got my life back on track. A creative outlet has turned my thoughts away from taking my own life.”
Life is for the living, and all three wrestle every match in honor of the lost.
“There is a destiny behind it,” said Brazier. “We’re supposed to tell this story, we’re supposed to help people.
“We’re helping spread awareness for PTSD and depression, for veterans and everyday people struggling with those same demons. I can help others escape those evil thoughts and give them that outlet to express themselves. We are all here to help and protect each other.”
The relentless pace of war allows no time to grieve or genuflect. Once disillusioned by life and calloused by death, the members of the Valhalla Club now find joy directly from their pain.
“You’re seeing all the stuff I’ve kept in for so long,” said Wittern. I used to ask myself, ‘How am I going to live?’ My outlet allowed me to see that you’ll get through it if you keep going.
“My experience as a soldier taught me that you never turn your back on an illness. You need to be present, attentive and work towards a solution.”
The veterans soldier on, marching toward a happier and healthier way of life for those fighting mental health battles.
“Pro wrestling works for us, but I want people to know they can battle their demons through a creative outlet,” said Ohrstrom. “I want to know that people who are struggling with mental health issues are coming up with new ideas to make their life better, not worse.”