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Airman shares his love of martial arts by teaching others self-defense

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. William Buchanan
  • 125th Fighter Wing
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Walking up to the bus stop before school, Chris would usually find a group of kids already there.

Among the group was one typical "give me your lunch money" kind of bully who insulted and threatened Chris on a daily basis, but it was one specific morning that tensions escalated out of control when that same bully reached into a nearby bush and pulled out a hammer.

"You are not allowed at my bus stop," the bully said.

The bully raised the hammer over his head and charged at Chris who turned and fled from the bus stop. With tears streaming down his face, Chris ran all the way home with the bully following close behind. Once inside his home with the door closed and locked behind him, Chris told his mom everything that had just taken place.

That day, Chris stayed home from school, and his father enrolled him at the United Studios of Self Defense.

Twenty years of martial arts training later, Staff Sgt. Chris Cowgill, a command post controller for the 125th Fighter Wing, spends his off-duty time at his very own martial arts studio training students of all ages how to defend themselves.

"It's my little way of trying to make the world a better place," Cowgill said.

To that end, Cowgill extended invitations to both the Girl Scouts of the United States of America and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida for free Stranger Danger classes. In these classes, Cowgill instructs children on potential warning signs strangers might display as well as basic self-defense techniques. He said that he would extend the same invitation to any children's group that requests it.

Likewise, Cowgill also offers free self-defense classes for women. Cowgill himself is married with two daughters who all train with him. He said he wants everyone to have the same training and confidence that he provides his own family.

"I want to be able to give back," Cowgill said. "I want people to know there's an option between being a victim and going to the extreme."

Cowgill opened his studio in October 2014 where he practices shoalin kempo, which incorporates elements of karate, kung fu, judo and jujutsu into a more practical martial art for use in real-world situations.

Rather than teaching students to break boards or do aerial kicks, Shoalin Kempo focuses on striking, kicking, felling and grappling into a hybrid system.

"I'm not going to kick some guy in the head that comes at me on the street," Cowgill said. "Only a crazy person would do that."

Besides his chosen martial art, Cowgill said the thing that sets his school apart from others is how he offers curriculum. Cowgill charges tuition for focused, one-on-one lessons. All group sessions are then offered for free as a bonus. Cowgill said other studios have the exact opposite model.

When Cowgill isn't instructing Shoalin Kempo, he works full time at the 125th FW command post. The command post is responsible for the command and control to scramble alert fighters for protection of the continental U.S. Cowgill and his fellow controllers monitor all incoming and outgoing information pertinent to the base and report this information to the commander so he or she can develop pre-emptive strategies or countermeasures, depending on the situation.

Command post operates 24/7, which means Cowgill and the other controllers work 12-hour shifts using the panama shift schedule. While this presents a challenge for scheduling classes at his studio, Cowgill plans to continue operating and expanding his studio in the future.

"If you have something that can help people, you should share it," Cowgill said. "The great thing about martial arts is you can train just about anybody; I can train a kid who is 4 years old, or someone who is 190, if they live that long."

It's been more than 20 years since that bully chased Cowgill home swinging a hammer. Since then, he's worked as a bouncer and served in the military. Despite these dangerous career choices, Cowgill said the day he ran from the bus stop was the scariest thing he's ever experienced.

"Knowing that somebody wants to hurt you, and there's nothing you can do about it, is the worst feeling in the world," Cowgill said.

After joining the United Studios of Self Defense as a child, and training in Shoalin Kempo, Cowgill developed the skills and self-confidence to deal with the bully. He said he learned what he was capable of. From that moment on, he didn't need to run from the bully, but he didn't need to confront him either. Cowgill never had another confrontation with the bully again.

I would hate for somebody else to have to go through that same thing," Cowgill said. "I would rather them know that they can take care of themselves and be able to walk away from the situation than have to be chased by a hammer, whether a real hammer or a figurative one."