TXMMA – Texas Mixed Martial Arts

Double amputee and Purple Heart recipient, an epitome of resilience

By TXMMA Guest Contributor // Jade Magalhaes  // Cover Photo: Joaquin Garay Photography


USMC vet “Jonny Boy” details journey that led him to Jiu-Jitsu


WEBSTER, TX – Amidst a sea of white and blue gis, sweat drops from an unconventional student. Professor Vinicius “Draculino” Magalhaes affectionately uses the nickname “Jonny Boy” to describe the U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Purple Heart recipient, double amputee and Gracie Barra Texas’ epitome of resilience.

Jonathan E. Dowdell’s decision to enlist in 2004 was natural. At only 17, the choice symbolized more than a career path– it was a family tradition. In fact, both of his grandfathers were in the Navy and his father is also a Purple Heart recipient from his service in Vietnam. Joining the Marine Corps provided Jonathan with the challenge he was looking for.

“Serving the country was something I thought of from a young age,” said Jonathan. “I had my mind made up before I even graduated High School. There wasn’t a lot of other paths for me.”

Jonathan proudly served as a Marine for a total of eight years, some of which was spent in deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the veteran, being in the front line was what called him to the job.

Jonathan serving in the Marine Corps during deployment.

Jonathan serving in the Marine Corps during deployment.

On June 24, 2010, Jonathan’s unit was instructed to conduct an investigation of a compound of suspected IED (improvised explosive devices) manufacturing.  In searches of an engineer to help securely enter the barricade, Jonathan stepped on a pressure plate IED, an explosive resembling an underground landmine.

Knocked unconscious, Jonathan instantly lost both legs and was left with other severe injuries, such as the amputation of his left index finger and a right arm deformity as a result of a forearm contracture.

“I remember seeing the helicopter coming to get me and then I was out,” Jonathan said. “I woke up 48 hours later in Germany where I underwent multiple surgeries, including three blood transfusions.”

Last photo taken of Jonathan in Afghanistan before suffering the injury that changed his life.

Last photo taken of Jonathan in Afghanistan before suffering the injury that changed his life.

The journey to recovery was short of smooth but Jonathan had the drive to go against all odds. The veteran had to learn how to sit up in bed, move around, transfer into wheelchairs, and walk with prosthetic legs.

“I remember small things like twitching a finger was a milestone,” Jonathan said. “I built up from there, going through the little things, never giving up and learning everyday.”

Shortly after completing the necessary physical therapy to re-gain mobility and comfort, Jonathan found boxing in Oceanside, California. He practiced as a hobby and a form of therapy. He then transitioned into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Bryan Harper, who helped with his training by taking the time to work privates until he felt he was ready to join the regular group classes.

“At first I didn’t know what I could and couldn’t do, obviously with my injuries,” Jonathan said.  “To this day it still throws some people off because they don’t know if there’s anything they should be cautious of when training with me.”

Jonathan found his way to League City, Texas through Operation Finally Home, a nonprofit organization that has provided custom-built, mortgage-free homes to America’s military heroes for the past ten years. According to him, his wife filled out the application and the family was contacted 20 minutes later to commence the rehoming process. The Dowdell’s were the hundredth family to receive a home from the organization.

Now, two years after Jonathan began his Jiu-Jitsu journey, he finds himself as a three-stripe blue belt training four-to-five times a week under Vinicius “Draculino” Magalhaes at Gracie Barra Texas in Webster.

“Jonathan is an unbelievable student and person,” Draculino said. “He’s a very technical and tough practitioner and he blended in perfectly with the Jiu-Jitsu community we have established here. I’m lucky and honored to have him as a student.”

Jonathan Dowdell in uniform receiving his purple heart after suffering injuries on June 24, 2010.

Jonathan Dowdell in uniform receiving his purple heart after suffering injuries on June 24, 2010.

For the coaches and training partners, having Jonathan on the mats helps them perfect their own craft.

“Every single day I have to think about ways to adapt the techniques I teach to the class to fit him,” Draculino said. “Everyday we think together, so it also makes me a better teacher.”

According to Jonathan, it would have been easy for a gym to turn him down from becoming a student. Nevertheless, in the suburbs of Houston he found just the opposite, he found a community.

“We’ve become close friends with other Gracie Barra members and we get together outside of the gym,” Jonathan said. “Jiu-Jitsu provides a community similar to the military and to the Marine Corps. You can be friends and you can relate to people from all backgrounds. In the Marine Corps, there’s brotherhood that is always there. Jiu-Jitsu has that camaraderie, that friendship.”

Regardless of the challenges and adaptations Jonathan experienced to actively participate in the Jiu-Jitsu world, he would recommend the sport to any “unconventional” student looking for a new hobby.

“Jiu-Jitsu is an art that is very specific to the individual,” Jonathan said. “Regardless of what obstacles you may have to overcome, there is a way to apply the art into your life. I believe Jiu-Jitsu is the most adaptive and rewarding martial art there is.”