NCO mentors through martial arts

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
  • 50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Once a gang member himself, an information manager with Detachment 2 of the 17th Test Squadron now uses kicks and punches to keep teenagers out of trouble. 

To his co-workers at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo., he is Staff Sgt. Dave Armstrong. To his students at the Hillside Community Center in Colorado Springs, he is Sensei Dave. 

At a martial-arts mentoring session April 11, Sergeant Armstrong led a class of nine students between 15 and 19 years old through the basics of Okinawan Kempo Karate and Judo. 

“Where are your hands?” he asked one student. “Stay there, stay there, stay there.”

As he adjusted a student’s hand positions, he said, “They’re still pointed at your opponent.” 

As a teen, Sergeant Armstrong grew up around gangs in Los Angeles. His misadventures landed him in a boys’ camp when he was 12. The camp first exposed him to martial arts. 

“They had different cottages -- you had to work up to the honors cottage, which had the martial-arts program,” Sergeant Armstrong said. “I wanted to do it, so I worked my way up to the honors cottage and got started.” 

The honors cottage instructor, Otto Johnson, told Sergeant Armstrong he had a knack for martial arts. Sergeant Armstrong so enjoyed learning martial arts that he gave up his former gang activity. 

“It got me off the streets,” he said. “I spent a lot of time training; it became an everyday thing.” 

When he turned 18, he began teaching martial arts for Sensei Otto. He now holds a third-degree black belt in Wado-Ryu Karate and second-degree black belts in Judo and Okinawan Kempo. He also has trained in Aikido and mixed martial-arts fighting. 

He includes his family in his martial arts activities as well. His wife, Belinda, helps him with a youth karate program offered through local childcare centers. His 12-year-old son, David, holds a blue belt in Okinawan Kempo; his daughter, 10-year-old Susan, holds an orange belt. 

But just teaching martial arts was not enough. So, Sergeant Armstrong began his mentoring program for at-risk youth about three months ago to give something back to teens who are in the same position he was in as a teen. 

“I’ve always wanted to have a program like I have now for kids who are locked up or in group homes or foster homes,” he said. “God’s given me so much just for me to be alive, I can’t do anything with my time other than give back. 

“I’m committed to these guys, to show them how their lives can be and will be. That’s what I set out to do,” he said. 

Eight to 10 teens participate in the program each week. 

“It started off with four to five interested,” Sergeant Armstrong said. “It’s a challenge to get people interested because they’re teenagers; they have their own agenda. But these (students) are a great bunch of guys.” 

The program took off once other teens had a chance to see how much fun the students were having. 

“I’m getting a new student every week or so,” he said. 

Because the mentoring takes place in an informal environment, the teens often do not realize they’re learning life lessons. 

“They don’t know they’re being mentored,” he said. “What I’m doing is effective -- I know it is because it helped me. You’re around positive influences, and you don’t realize you’re improving until it’s done.” 

Justus, 18, found out about the martial-arts mentoring through a local faith-based organization that provides mentoring, employment and fellowship for at-risk teens. 

“(The class) teaches you self-defense, and it’s fun,” Justus said. “You get your energy out; it’s a good workout. And Sensei Dave helps you out if you don’t understand something.” 

Sensei Dave is also a good role-model, Justus said. “He’s a big teddy bear. He’s 'gi-normous' on the outside, and on the inside, he’s a really nice guy.” 

Sergeant Armstrong said he wants to expand his youth martial-arts mentoring program after he retires. He also is looking for others to volunteer their time as mentors. 

“Right now I’m trying to find an instructor to come and train with me and eventually take over the program when I move,” Sergeant Armstrong said. “This is something I want to keep going forever.” 

Although he has no plans to leave Colorado Springs in the near future, moving is part of living in the military. 

“Anyplace I go, I’ll start the same program up there,” he said. “One of my goals is to have a network of programs like this for at-risk youth to help them, because it got me off the streets.”