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Sergeant creates dragons in Japan

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan (AFPN) -- Staff Sgt. Eric Suan often wears a white uniform, but he is not a medic and he does not work in a snowy climate. If you think he sells ice cream, think again -- or you might get kicked in the teeth.

Six nights a week, this 34-year-old aviation resource manager with the 17th Special Operations Squadron here, suits up in his martial arts outfit to instruct more than 200 people at Olympic-style tae kwon do.

"Double kick! Spin, hook, kick!" Suan directs the charge while holding a padded target and slowly backpedaling. The student attacks with determined ferocity and the dogged resolve to get it right.

Fifteen-year-old Ryan Shavnore is a second-degree black belt who has studied tae kwon do for three years.

"I enjoy different aspects of this sport for various reasons," he said. "When facing less-experienced students, it's like an outright fight. When I face my peers, it's akin to a chess match. They know all the moves I know and it becomes a matter of selection and execution."

Each student is keenly aware of the five tenants of tae kwon do: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. Suan said these values are practiced inside and outside the gym. He watches his students with a critical eye.

"The most difficult part of this job is not getting them to understand or to motivate them," he said. "More challenging is learning everybody's individual talents and weaknesses -- and then pairing students who can best learn from each other."

With 200 students between the ages of 4 and 40, Suan spends at least 16 hours a week in the in the fitness center.

"I'm amazed by the dedication of my students," said Suan. "They come to every class bringing energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes students who transferred away years ago will write me a thank-you letter with graduation photos enclosed. Others write asking for recommendations. It's flattering that they would think of me as someone who shaped them into young adults."

In recent years, classes expanded so fast Suan needed help. He enlisted his wife Maria and 14-year-old daughter Sharon.

"It came to a point where I couldn't do it all by myself," he said. "Maria is great with the parents, she has never-ending patience with the kids and is an administrative dream come true."

Sharon's been kicking around her dad for eight years and sports a black belt of her own.

"She serves as a role model for many other students," Suan said. "Sometimes it's easier for her to explain things to her peers."

Leslie Hite, a Kadena sixth-grader, said her classmates are like family.

"I've been studying martial arts for six years," she said . "But I've only been sparring for three. I like to come here and be with my friends and get a good workout."

A good workout is almost guaranteed at Kadena's tae kwon do classes, but it is not the only motivation for students.

Some are drawn by the prospect of defending themselves. Others seek the improvement in balance and body control provided by a few months of practice. Others just want to fight like Pokemon.

The Little Dragons class is made up of 30 or so 4- and 5-year-olds. If belts were awarded on desire, they would each be at the top.

"They come here wanting to impress us so badly," he said. "They want to fly through the air like cartoon characters and they hang on every word we say. They have no bad habits at all and they catch on so fast, it's just amazing."

The Dragons are not allowed to spar because, as Suan says, they do not quite know what they are capable of, Suan said

During his youth at George Air Force Base, Calif., Suan was an avid martial artist. In the early '70s he followed his father as a toddler until accepted for formal training at 6 years old. In high school, he opted for traditional sports like basketball, football and baseball.

When he came to Kadena seven years ago, he realized his children would benefit from tae kwon do and has been busy ever since. When he has time to train, he still competes occasionally but admits he is beyond the age of the competitive range.

"Normally the best tournament competitive fighters are between 14 and 26 years old due to their speed, endurance and recovery time from minor injuries," he said.

"Some of my students are right there, though," he said. "In addition to five state champions, one of my former students made the Air Force tae kwon do team (second place in the armed forces tournament) and another made the Marine team."

Suan now relishes passing on his knowledge to others.

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