June, 22 2017
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Virginia Boot Camp Brings Hope to Troubled Teens
Staff Sgt. Lloyd Muldrow flipped over the rolling black suitcase, dumping white socks, underwear, flip-flops, envelopes and detergent in a small mound on the carpet.
The pile was all that 16-year-old Christopher Mahoney would have for the next six months.
With glasses and a round belly, the teen didn’t appear to be cut out for Commonwealth Challenge, a six-month quasi-military training program based at the Camp Pendleton National Guard installation.
“He wants to work. He doesn’t want to do well in school,” said Mahoney’s mother, Lisa Morris, who learned about the program from another parent. “He’s not real responsible.”
More than 200 dropouts age 16 to 18 converged there in July, each with a parent or mentor who cared enough to try to change the trajectory of their lives.
Students in the program often have disdained school or have had run-ins with the law or problems with authority.
Boot Camp's Goal
Commonwealth Challenge is trying to teach them discipline, give them coping skills and help them become productive. The odds of such turnarounds aren’t great, but in this place, they’re mostly succeeding.
The program has been expanding in the past few years, admitting a record number of troubled teens this summer. To enroll, applicants must be free of drugs and have no felony convictions.
A Program Producing Results
About half of the graduates get jobs, 20 percent join the military and 20 percent go on to higher education, said retired Marine Col. Thomas Early, a decorated Vietnam veteran and director of the program.
“Ten percent do get lost.”
More than two-thirds of all state prison inmates are high school dropouts, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
When it works, the program sends home a different child – one who will avoid prison and the allure of gangs and drugs, a child who will be employed or go to college.
That’s what each parent hopes for.
Mahoney , who was ejected from Bayside High School in Virginia Beach for disrespectful and disruptive behavior, would be issued a uniform within an hour. Inside two days, he would be sent off with a platoon of about 50 to endure two weeks of boot camp. If he thrived on the physical challenge – at an isolated fort several hours away – months of regimented life and classes would follow.
“If he keeps going down the wrong path, he could end up in jail,” Morris said as she handed her son’s asthma medications and nebulizer to Muldrow.
With his approved possessions tossed in a black garbage bag, Mahoney was given a moment to say goodbye to his family. He shook hands with his dad and gave two quick hugs to his mom.
“See you at graduation,” he said.
A few steps away, Dominick Torchia, a command master chief at Norfolk Naval Station , stood in uniform with his son’s bag at his feet.
“He realizes this is one of his last chances,” Torchia said of Jacob, 16.
“High school was a total bust,” said Torchia’s wife, Lucy. “He wouldn’t show up for class, or would take off. He wouldn’t do the work.”
Across Camp Pendleton, a lean Jacob Torchia was in line for a physical.
He said he heard about Commonwealth Challenge while in court on a marijuana possession charge.
“They told me it expanded opportunities, gave me a better chance to succeed in life,” said Torchia , who dropped out of King’s Fork High School in Suffolk after his 10th- grade year.
“We’re pinning all our hopes on it,” his mother said.
History of the Program for Troubled Teens
Virginia’s version of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program is one of the longest- running in the country. It has been acclimating troubled teenagers to drills and chow lines since 1994. Through June, when the previous class wrapped up, the program has graduated 2,498 students.
On average, about 76 percent of those who start the program finish it. Some will drop out. Others will be kicked out for behavior such as repeated fighting or running away.
Among those who finish, about two-thirds get a GED or high school diploma.
“Ninety-five percent of them come back and say, 'Hey, you turned the light bulb on,’ ” Early said. “We love to have that thrown in our face.”
Versions of the program exist at 34 sites throughout the country at a cost of about $14,000 per student. Students pay nothing. Their tuition is covered by a combination of state and federal funding.
Keiyon Downing was a cadet in fall 2005. He got his GED through the program and has been working at Rite Aid. He’s hoping to move to Georgia to launch a hip- hop music career.
“When you get out in life, you’re already ahead,” he said. Downing, 19, was several years behind when he dropped out of Norfolk’s Maury High School.
He reminisced about the order Commonwealth Challenge put into his days and the pillow fights at night.
“I would love to stay there the rest of my life,” he said. “For real.”
Getting into the Program
Col. Early pulled his Dodge van between the rappelling tower and obstacle course at Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County, not far from Fredericksburg . Commonwealth Challenge had relocated all four of the platoons – three male, one female – to complete two weeks of boot camp.
“As much as you tell a 16-, 17-year-old kid, 'we’re gonna be in your face, we’re gonna yell at you,’ when we get up here, they panic,” Early said.
This class, the 27th since the program’s inception had started with 208 students the week before. It was down to 203.
Torchia was already having doubts. He had talked to several people in the command structure, called the cadre, about leaving.
Despite springing over the hurdles on the fort’s obstacle course with ease, he missed home and his parents.
“I think about that every day and night,” he said. “They wanted me to go to this program, so I have to succeed, make them proud.”
Out on the obstacle course, beads of sweat were rolling down Mahoney’s forehead, leaving tracks on his dusty face. His wavy blond hair had been replaced by a buzz cut.
He fell twice before heaving his upper body onto the “belly buster” obstacle, chest-high logs lashed together like a raft.
“Keep your feet moving!” shouted Army Spc. Randy Hagans as the teens in the platoon raced between obstacles. His voice was hoarse with shouting. “Get motivated, get motivated, you!”
At the end of the course, Mahoney stopped for a water break. His face was red and he said he felt “like crap.”
“But I know I’m making it, so I’m all right,” he said. “I haven’t quit yet, so I’m not going to.”
On the second pass through the course, Mahoney pushed on despite a cramp in his right leg.
He vaulted himself over a log that was swinging in the air like a giant
“Great job, Mahoney!” Hagans shouted .
Members of two platoons turned to look at the young man easing his body down the 50-foot rappel tower.
“I bet he feels accomplished,” Torchia said.
Daniel Seymore, nearly 400 pounds when he began the program, took one slow step at a time. The Norfolk 18-year-old couldn’t fit into military-issue khakis , so he wore gray sweatpants and a T-shirt.
As he hung suspended by cords from above, the other young men shouted encouragement. But Seymore seemed not to hear a thing.
“I was practically crying at the top,” Seymore said after his descent. He looked dazed as he sat at the end of a row of metal bleachers, slightly apart from his platoon. “At first it was scary. At the end, it felt good. At the end, I wanted to do it again.”
Seymore, who dropped out of the eighth grade at Lafayette-Winona Middle School in Norfolk more than a year ago, said he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.
At 5:30 a.m. on a rainy August morning, Cpl. Russell Ruffin shouted: “On your feet. Let’s go!” to a barracks filled with several dozen teens . Then he started to count down from 10.
“Three, two, one!”
The young men, called cadets after completing boot camp, stood at the foot of their metal-frame beds. They shouted “Freeze, sir!” in unison.
In barracks all around Camp Pendleton, 173 teenagers were waking up and heading for the showers and sinks.
Seymore closed his trunk and pulled on black lace-up boots.
Persistence Paying Off
Before Commonwealth Challenge, he was “just hanging in the streets,” looking for something to do.
Seymore had given up on school. He thought it was “too late,” said his mother, Brenda Lacy.
“All I was doing was taking up space in the classroom,” he said. “The academic classes here are on a pace I can understand.”
In the trailer that houses Commonwealth Challenge’s main offices, Torchia was sitting in an office waiting to talk to Sgt. Maj. Robert Laury.
The night before, Torchia and a friend sneaked off base to the Oceanfront. Then he called his father in Suffolk and asked him to pick him up.
It would be his last day.
“The only way to get home quickly was to do what I did,” Torchia said.
Early said the teen didn’t have enough commitment to the voluntary program and lacked the maturity to complete it.
“My wife and I are very, very disappointed,” Dominick Torchia said. “It’s a great program. He was good at it. I don’t understand.”
At first, Jacob was too embarrassed to talk about why he left.
“He feels like he kind of failed, too,” his father said.
Eventually, the teen said he felt he had to get away from the fights and back-stabbing behavior of other cadets.
“I’m just happy to be home now,” he said. He has re-enrolled at King’s Fork High School and wants to follow his father’s footsteps into the Navy.
But he has no regrets. “I’m realizing I have to do something with my life,” he said. “It was a life-changing experience.”
While Torchia was waiting to be dismissed, Mahoney was in a math class several trailers away.
Battling intermittent boredom and frustration with his studies, he tapped a green notebook with his fingertips.
“I gotta do it,” he said, looking over the word problems. “I know how to do it. I just didn’t do it in regular school.” Instead he had cut up in class and let finished homework languish in his backpack.
This time, he is making the effort. On his first pass home at the beginning of September, the first thing he showed his mother was an award for excellence in math.
“He seemed a lot more grown up,” his mother said.
He told her he wants to join the National Guard and become a diesel mechanic. And in early October, his family got the news: He passed the GED.
Seymore earned the program’s Silver Phase award for all-around excellence in late September , and he studied during free periods.
He also wants to get into shape. The first time he was weighed during the program, Early had to take him to a commercial scale at a food bank. He was 374 pounds after boot camp.
Hagans praised Seymore for staying out there and getting up when he falls.
“I thought he wasn’t going to make it at first,” Hagans said. “I’m impressed by him.”
Seymore has enjoyed Commonwealth Challenge so much that he wants to enlist.
“The challenge is training your mind, body and spirit – not just your body,” he said one morning in the barracks.
The day he got his award, 155 students of the original 208 were left in his class.
“Anyone can give up, but it takes a real man or real woman to finish.”
Graduation comes in December. And he plans to be there.
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