Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the January 2012 issue of Black Belt. As such, its time references have been left intact.
They say there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine, so it’s not surprising that while the service record of a certain gunnery sergeant named Leon Wright says he retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2003, “private citizen” Wright has yet to complete the transition and ease himself into a relaxing life of golf and gardening. On the contrary, for the past nine years, he’s worked as a civilian-defense-industry contractor, clocking as much time with the Marines in the combat zones of the Middle East as he did on active duty.
In the spirit of the Corps’ semper fidelis motto, Wright has dedicated his post-military life to serving his country and its men and women in uniform. So while his retirement job as a civilian “area site manager” has him overseeing the daily operations of numerous coalition forward operating bases in the no man’s land of Afghanistan, Wright is engaged in a more hands-on activity to support his fellow Marines. It’s an activity that combines his enduring sense of duty to the Corps with his lifelong passion for the martial arts: He volunteers his free time to teach a growing cadre of students his personal martial art, souseiki ryu sekkinsen shigaisen.
Martial Arts Credibility
Truth be told, Wright is not merely a guy who’s generous with his time and happens to love the ways of mano a mano. To understand why so many students accept his pro bono offer, a quick scan of his résumé is required.
With 41 years of experience in a range of Asian fighting styles, Wright is a 10th-degree black belt and the founder of souseiki ryu, an art that’s formally recognized in Okinawa and Japan, as well as the United States.
The recognition of Wright’s art in the Far East endorses more than just the man. “The masters there are not as interested in the individual who founded the art as they are in seeing the students of that art,” Wright says. “To them, the quality and character of the students determine the legitimacy of the system.”
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Wright is also a fifth-degree black belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, which puts his rank one step higher than the maximum fourth degree normally available to his gunnery sergeant paygrade. Wright is also a certified MCMAP subject-matter expert, which authorizes him to teach the program as a civilian. He’s the former head instructor of the MCMAP Far East School, which he helped launch in 2001 while stationed in Okinawa. More recently, he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as 2010 Self-Defense Instructor of the Year.
All In the Family
Wright’s dojo, the Urban Warrior Training Academy, is located on an FOB in Afghanistan, where he lives and works alongside a wide range of military and civilian personnel. He uses an appropriately martial metaphor to describe their outpost, which is in the middle of one of the world’s most notorious hot spots: “The FOB is our castle, the perimeter wire is our moat, and everything else is the battlefield.”
The constant pressure of living in a hostile environment forges a strong bond among those inside the wire. As a non-combatant in a combat zone, Wright sees this shared bond as a requirement for earning the respect and trust of his students. “When you train [people] who have live combat experience, you need to be up to par because they will test you,” Wright says. “For them, it’s not a matter of ego or to prove who is a better fighter; they test you because the techniques you teach them could mean the difference between life and death outside the wire. Marines are very educated students.”
As Wright sees it, living on a base under the same conditions as his students goes a long way toward earning their respect and trust, even though he can’t accompany them on their daily forays into harm’s way.
“I live on the FOB with them, so aside from going on patrol or firing an M16 at the enemy, I share the same experiences, challenges and hardships,” he says. “They accept me and understand that I know what they go through day to day. The Marines are the biggest fraternity in the world. We are a family.”
Wright’s instinct to protect his “family” was the motivation behind his desire to establish his dojo in Afghanistan, where he could play a leading role in helping his students survive the many dangers they face. Despite his civilian status, the military made an exception to their policy and granted Wright permission to set up shop and instruct active-duty soldiers in his art.
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By Any Other Name
While the name of Wright’s art may be a mouthful, the meaning behind the moniker is based on simplicity, efficiency and realism. Souseiki refers to “time of creation,” ryu to “school” or “way,” sekkinsen to “close combat” or “infighting,” and shigaisen to “street fighting.”
“We focus on self-defense with realistic situational training,” Wright says. “Our techniques include fast hand strikes, low kicks and grappling that utilizes throws, joint locks, chokes and pressure points. My students also learn proper breathing technique and how to cultivate and channel their internal energy so they can further develop endurance and power.”
The fundamentals also address weapons. “We train with both practical and improvised street weapons such as articles of clothing, knives and sticks, and [we practice] disarming techniques for knives and guns,” Wright says. “These are things you’re likely to encounter in a close-combat situation. [For example,] the wooden-staff techniques can be applied to anything from a broomstick to an empty rifle. The only limitation you face is if you lack creativity; there are no rules in live combat.”
Wright reinforces the need to execute all techniques with speed and economy of motion. “Flashy movements detract from the reality of the street,” he says.
By design, the level of realism in souseiki ryu is the feature that separates it from the safety-first approach used in most other styles. Wright achieves this through what he calls a “paradigm shift” in training procedures. His students don’t use gloves, mouthpieces, headgear or any kind of protective equipment. The logic is undeniable: If you don’t wear it in the field, you don’t wear it in training.
“We train live and with full force, without pads or striking at the air,” he says. “You need to train it for real and not just go through the motions.”
Also absent are the step-by-step self-defense drills Wright refers to as robotic movements performed on compliant partners, sequences that result in techniques that seldom work in a confrontation. Instead, all techniques are practiced with aggressive noncompliance. It’s the only way, he insists, to really know whether something will work under pressure.
“In live combat, you need to make the chaos your calm,” Wright says. “Fighting is hard, painful and unpredictable. If you’re not conditioned to face those realities in training, you won’t be prepared to face them on the battlefield.”
Mark of Distinction
Body conditioning, or the strengthening of parts of the body through repetitive striking — which serves to increase pain tolerance — is another aspect of souseiki ryu that separates it from the pack. It stands to reason that the demands of full-contact fighting require that one can endure the demands of, well, full contact.
“If you can’t hit someone without doing damage to yourself or, conversely, if you can’t take a hit, you’re putting yourself in peril,” Wright says.
The physicality of souseiki ryu leaves a strong impression on observers whenever Wright conducts self-defense seminars in the States. “Not too many martial artists train for reality,” he says. “You need to feel and know where the pain is if you’re going to inflict that pain on someone else in a combat situation.”
And when there is pain, it’s often accompanied by fear — a fact that Wright considers an inevitable and natural response that’s to be managed rather than eliminated.
“Fear comes from a feeling of not having control,” Wright explains. “But in a life-or-death situation, you need to face that fear without hesitation. Once you make it through, you have to be mentally prepared to go back out into danger again and again. Our training places an emphasis on getting our students used to personal violence and not always having control.”
Beyond the nuts and bolts of assembling an arsenal of effective techniques through hard-core training, Wright has ensured that his system stands on a solid philosophical foundation, one that shares many core values with the traditional arts.
“One of the goals of my art is for students to realize their full potential as human beings through physical, mental and spiritual growth,” he says.
“Dignity and respect are the other side of the warrior spirit,” he continues. “For my American students, I like to compare the way of bushido to the laws of a Scout, which most of them are familiar with. The primal virtues expressed in these codes are rules for better living, plain and simple. Having these virtues will make you a better student, better teacher, better master, better grandmaster — there’s no end.”
Since his students often struggle with the post-traumatic effects of combat, souseiki ryu also addresses methods for overcoming challenges in what Wright calls “our walk of life” in addition to overcoming the threat of personal violence.
“I want my students in Afghanistan, or anywhere they may be, to have the skills to physically survive violence and make it home,” Wright says. “But for all of us, soldier and civilian, the mind is a powerful weapon that can cut both ways. We need to focus on developing mental survival skills, as well.”
In the aftermath of a combat incident, Wright facilitates discussion among his students, encouraging them to work through the stress of their experiences together so they’re able to re-engage their minds and go back out on patrol. He uses this process as a way to provide them with the support they need through collective strength.
“When you live, train and work as a team, it actually helps you to learn more about yourself and how you respond to adversity,” Wright says. “It also creates a sense of being connected to like-minded individuals, which is very important. You end up with a family-like bond you can depend on when you have to.”
Quality of Life
Because of his art’s emphasis on practicality, Wright refers to it as an open-minded system. He readily accepts that each of his students has his own abilities, opinions and, quite often, a black belt in another system.
“Everyone brings their own dog to a fight, and while the techniques I teach function on common concepts, they need to have personal interpretations based on the individual student,” he says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all mentality in my approach.”
Wright’s simple wish is that each day when a student leaves the dojo, he’s a little better than when he came in — not just as a fighter but as a person.
“In the end, teaching soldiers a martial art like souseiki ryu — as opposed to just pure combatives — is a way to make them what I call ‘protectors’ and hopefully increase their quality of life away from the battlefield,” Wright says. “The protector doesn’t always have to be the predator or the aggressor. You can be the sheepdog instead of the wolf and get the job done. That’s the difference I want to make in the lives of my students.”
About the Author:
Patrick Bamburak is a professional musician, recording artist and martial artist who currently studies combat isshin-ryu under Black Belt Hall of Fame member Gary Alexander. For more information, visit baitoven.com.