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Young Marines graduate from 'boot camp'

Mary Pickels
| Monday, May 14, 2012, 3:19 a.m.

Thirteen pairs of polished boots marched forward, the tips reflecting neatly pressed camouflaged fatigues. As their names were called, the recruits stepped forward, backs ramrod straight, hands raised in a salute. They returned to their seats as privates Saturday, official graduates of the Westmoreland County Young Marines program.

The group solemnly stated the Young Marines creed and obligation before family and friends, who gathered for the graduation program at the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory in Hempfield Township.

The program usually graduates two platoons each year from the three-month "boot camp" course.

Ron Maxson, a retired first sergeant in the Marines and local corps training officer, said the students learn about military rank, history and traditions.

"We try to instill honor, courage and commitment," he said.

George Reichart, commanding officer, has worked with the corps for about three years.

"I set the objectives that I want to see the unit go in," he said. "The biggest thing that they get out of this is how to work as a team. We try to splash onto our kids some of the experiences and life lessons we've gone through, and give them some tools of success."

They may also learn about substance abuse, take wilderness survival trips and learn about firearms safety.

Following "graduation," they can start attaining rank and earning ribbons for mastering various skills, from sports to participation in bands to acts of heroism to learning cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"It's a good thing," Maxson said. "These kids are really motivated. They give it their all."

He said the Young Marines' version of boot camp is not quite as rigid as military enlistees might anticipate.

"It's not quite boot camp where we get in their faces," he said, "but we're not easy on them."

And the recruits are expected to use good manners.

"We expect to hear 'sir' and ma'am'," he said.

According to its Web site, the Young Marines is the official youth program of the Marine Corps League. It was founded 44 years ago to promote mental, moral and physical development of young Americans.

Joe Bles is inspector general of the Young Marines at its national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Boys and girls, ages 8 through high school, with a cutoff age of 20, are welcome, he said.

"Boot camp is sort of like a challenge, a rite of passage," Bles said.

Emily Hauser, 14, was the sole female in yesterday's graduating class. The eighth-grade student at Wendover Middle School heard about the program when representatives visited her school. Hauser, who plans to enlist in the military following high school graduation, said she plans to continue on in the program. She hopes to one day obtain a college scholarship.

"I want to be a veterinarian," she said. "I want to buy my own farm and take care of animals at my house."

Corey Nelson, 11, a sixth-grade student at Wendover, recently moved to the Greensburg area from South Carolina. He, too, heard about the program at school.

"I just wanted to check it out," he said yesterday .

Brandon Smith, a senior at Penn-Trafford High School, is a boot-camp graduate who remains active with the organization.

Smith, 17, said he has wanted to become a Marine since he was about 6 years old. He has already enlisted, on a delayed-entry basis, and has also applied to the United States Naval Academy. "Either way," he said, "I'm going into the military."

Smith said he considers his experience with the Marines invaluable. He's learned CPR, gone hiking, learned winter survival skills, marched in parades and met students from other schools.

He's also gone to Young Marines summer school the last two years, including 15 days spent on a Marine base to attend Service Leadership School in Quantico, Va., and seven days in San Diego, Calif., for Drill and Ceremony School. "It gave us some insight into what base life is like," he said.

He said the group helps instill discipline in its charges. "We are encouraged to keep our grades up," he said, "and to stay in shape. We are taught the value of integrity, of living up to your words."

Smith said "pretty much everybody could benefit" from participation. "You are under no obligation to go into the military," he added.

Bles said the organization has grown from 33 units and 1,000 members in 1993 to 240 units and 20,000 members today. A federal grant a decade ago helped the group expand.

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