Story and Photography By Kristin Goode

I spent a good portion of my formative years protecting my neighborhood from bad guys who were around every corner — well, at least imaginary bad guys around every corner. As a child of the ’80s, I had small-screen role models like She-Ra and Wonder Woman who could kick some serious tail. Quite frankly, it never occurred to me that I could not take care of myself.

Here’s the rub, though. This was all in theory. Some 30 years later I hadn’t taken so much as an intro karate course. If actual trouble materialized, how would I react?

Thankfully for me and the other women of Brunswick County, the answer to such a question can be found in a safe environment — in a R.A.D. class.

Rape Aggression Defense (R.A.D.) classes, offered free of charge by the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, provide foundational self-defense knowledge over a relatively short time frame. During four three-hour sessions, instructors like Sergeant T. K. Nowell teach participants strategies that give them a fighting chance should they ever find themselves in real trouble.

And real trouble is out there. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five women experiences rape in her lifetime. RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) puts it another way: On average a sexual assault occurs every two minutes in the United States.

New Hanover County had already started offering R.A.D. classes when Nowell became a member of Brunswick County’s crime prevention unit in 2012. News spread about the New Hanover classes.

“I thought it would be an awesome opportunity for the women of our county,” says Nowell, who spearheaded the effort to offer Brunswick R.A.D. classes and became a certified instructor in June 2013.

Nowell and First Sergeant Bert Reaves conducted their first class in July 2013 for volunteers from the Sheriff’s Office. One of those volunteers was Public Information Officer Emily Flax.

Flax was on the fence about taking the class at first. Even as an avid walker, at 42 years of age she didn’t think she could physically do it. But casting her doubts aside, she took the course. Flax did so well she was recruited to be an instructor.

“I was the star pupil in the guinea pig class,” Flax says. “I never would have thought that I had the power in me and on me to defend myself. Now I do. In the event of an attack I know I would be able to do something to defend myself.”

A little over a year later, more than 180 women have learned self-defense techniques and strategies through the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office. Nowell, Reaves and Flax work with fellow instructors Captain Clint Simpson and Deputy Ashley Williams to offer an average of two classes per month.

In early August, I attended a R.A.D. class at Beach Road Baptist Church. Olivia Hood, co-president of the Southport Junior Women’s Club, organized the class. Nowell gave the attendees an introduction to the R.A.D. system, including what R.A.D. dubs 90 percent of self-defense education: risk awareness, risk reduction, risk recognition and risk avoidance.

This portion of the course focuses on removing the opportunity for criminality. Many of the strategies presented only require some forethought along with common sense and an awareness of your surroundings. As the R.A.D. course materials state, “If you are never the target, you are never the victim, never the defender and always the vigilant warrior, aware and prepared.”

Fellow R.A.D. student Joy McClenny says the lesson to “always be aware” is one of her biggest takeaways from the course.

For Nowell the ideal mindset is on the border between prepared and paranoid. This can include planting holly or rose bushes under windows that would make entry through a window a rather uncomfortable affair. Inside the home it could be leaving old cell phones charged throughout the house for easy access. Even without an active cell phone plan, these phones will allow you to dial 911.

The first class wasn’t limited to theory. Before long we were on our feet. Nowell and Reaves demonstrated the defensive positions that would be the jumping-off point for many of the techniques we would learn later in the course. Known as cautious contact, warning contact and defensive stance, these postures key in on the importance of obtaining good balance when resisting an attack.

As we practiced these positions, choruses of “No!” or “Get back!” reverberated throughout the fellowship hall before the class adjourned for the night.

We covered a lot of ground on the following two evening sessions. R.A.D. participants learn everything from blocks and parries to striking motions, kicks and knee strikes. The classes are physical, and the instructors take a beating, quite literally.

The beauty of these classes is that everyone can move at her own pace. Students can choose to participate or to sit out at any point. “It’s good to learn what you can do and what you can’t do,” says Nowell.

Participants are often surprised at their own power. “I have seen women twice my age out there kicking tail,” says Flax.

My own surprise wasn’t rooted in my power; instead, it was in my gut reaction to hitting someone. The classes had given me an honest answer as to how I would react if trouble materialized and it wasn’t what I had envisioned. Time and time again I found the words “I’m sorry” tumbling out of my mouth. Here I was apologizing to my attacker! Luckily, Nowell has a remedy for habitual apologizers like me — pushups.

With umpteen pushups out of the way and the individual moves sinking in, we took it up a notch and began discussing options at our disposal for breaking free from an attacker. Moves like the hammer fist and the finger roll use momentum to attack the vulnerable locations on an assailant, in these cases the forearm and fingers respectively.

R.A.D. gave us strategies for how to defend ourselves from almost every conceivable angle, whether locked in a bear hug or grasped in a chokehold. It also gave us endless opportunities for practice so that the lessons became second nature. Each R.A.D. course includes a Lifetime Return and Practice Policy, meaning past participants can return to any course worldwide to practice their skills.

The final class of the course puts all the lessons learned over the previous three days to the test in a controlled but challenging environment. Students and instructors suit up in protective padding before undergoing a simulation that pits a single student against one or more aggressors. The simulations are videotaped and reviewed by the class as a whole later in the evening so that students can analyze their responses.

Portions like the video review help foster a sisterhood among the participants. “You feel a commonality with everyone,” says Flax.

McClenny’s advice to women who are thinking about signing up for the course is to “Take it, without a doubt, even if you’ve taken other classes.”

R.A.D. – Rape Aggression Defense classes

For more information about R.A.D. classes through the Brunswick Sheriff’s Office, to see the class schedules and to sign up for a future class, go to .

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