Calif. group introduces teens to military life
By ROWENA COETSEE | Contra Costa Times | Published: February 8, 2013
BETHEL ISLAND, Calif. — Hooah!
Outfitted in military fatigues, the teens circled the lot in a brisk jog chanting an Army paratroopers' cadence.
"I got a reserve by my side
If that one should fail me too
Look out below, I'm comin' through
Don't leave me in the old drop zone
Box me up and ship me home"
A passing motorist slowed to shout his approval as the small group carried out its training exercise, one of many it would do that day.
Venture Crew No. 1777 has been giving youths a feel for military life since the Boy Scouts affiliate formed 16 months ago in Antioch.
"United States Future Army Soldiers," as the recruits have dubbed themselves, is the only Venturing crew of its kind in the five-county area that the Boy Scouts' Mt. Diablo Silverado Council serves and one of only 17 military-theme crews in the state.
The organization recently moved to Bethel Island, where it meets two Saturdays a month at "battalion headquarters," a nearly empty lot along the main street in town.
The crew's 18 members spend the two-hour gatherings in physical training and performing drills while learning codes of conduct and values such as respect, loyalty and cooperation.
"Everybody learns how to work together as a team," said group leader Timothy Vaughn.
And indeed, the youths must help each other scale a wall that they have erected on the property, the first installment in what eventually will be an obstacle course.
"Get 'em over! Get 'em over!" yelled Staff Sgt. Devin Nicholson, 18, as pairs of teens boosted and pulled each other over the top.
Vaughn, a former Boy Scout and Vietnam veteran, established the organization in September 2011 after learning of a similar group in Southern California.
"It had nothing to do with the military," he said of his reasoning. "I like the idea of giving kids something to do. A lot of them get into the wrong crowd at school."
His would be a group where working parents could leave their child and know that he or she is learning values that will serve them for a lifetime, Vaughn said — the military theme is simply a tool for doing that.
"Instead of playing video games, they're out there learning stuff they can actually use," he said.
Although Vaughn has higher motives, youths are drawn to the group's fun quotient.
"It sounded cool. I'm kind of into that stuff, military things," said 14-year-old Matthew Trine of Bethel Island.
That includes the R&R that troops enjoy from time to time: They test their sharpshooting skills in target practices on the lot that Vaughn is borrowing from the church next door, and also have traveled beyond East Contra Costa in search of adventure.
The boys — no girls have signed up yet — have visited the air and space museum at Travis Air Force Base in Vacaville and spent a night on Mt. Diablo where they learned to start a fire without matches.
They used Airsoft rifles in war games while camping in Tahoe National Forest, and on another trip explored the enormous cave known as Moaning Cavern in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Most of the time, however, these teenagers are all business.
Newcomers join as "recruits" and, like those in mainstream Boy Scouts troops, advance only after demonstrating specific proficiencies.
At each stage there's an oral interview as well as a written test covering topics from the military's ranking system to the phonetic alphabet that's used to avoid confusion during radio and telephone transmissions.
Along the way youngsters also learn how to fold the U.S. flag into a tidy triangle when presenting it at a military funeral and to watch their language.
"If we hear you (cussing) there will be punishment because we don't accept that. Understood?" said 1st Sgt. Giovanni Palacios, 17.
"Yes, first sergeant!" the ranks responded in unison.
Dress and appearance standards are also part of the decorum — shirts are to be tucked in, hair neatly trimmed — as are all-important protocols such as when to salute, remove their caps and how to address superiors.
At his first meeting earlier this month, Trine found himself doing five pushups after the recruit accidentally called a sergeant "sir" — an appellation reserved for officers.
So did Pfc. Jonathan Behring when he referred to a higher-ranking friend by his first name.
And recruit Giovanni Peña quickly learned that there's no room for horseplay with his buddies when he's in uniform.
"If you mess around you gotta do push-ups," said the Freedom High School freshman, who plans to enlist in the Army after graduating.
David Behring checked out the Venturing crew before his son joined to make sure drill sergeants weren't yelling belittling remarks at new recruits inches from their faces.
That was some six months ago, and since then he's noticed a visible change in his 14-year-old.
"Already I have seen more respect of self. When he's in uniform he knows that he's on display," said Behring, noting that his son removes his patrol cap when entering a building and exudes an air of confidence with his more upright posture.
Far from chafing at all the rules, the teens seem to relish the discipline.
The young Behring, who has his sights set on a career in the U.S. Army after graduating from West Point, considers the strict approach good preparation for the real thing.
"That's how it is — they're not just going to let you say whatever you want," the Freedom High School student said. "We're trying to make it as authentic as possible so why skimp out?"