Young Marines get marching orders
Kevin Walkup can order his younger sister around.
As a sergeant in the Keystone Young Marines, he outranks her.
“Swing that around,” barked Walkup, 16, of Whitehall as he pointed to the rifle resting on the shoulder of his sister, Brianna, 12, a lance corporal.
Dressed in military-style boots, camouflage pants and caps, and red T-shirts, the Walkups drilled together on a recent Thursday evening with about 15 other Young Marines at Baldwin United Presbyterian Church
know he orders me around because I’m his sister,” Brianna Walkup said. “Yes, I get annoyed. But I wanted to do something together with him, so we joined at the same time.”
The siblings enlisted two years ago in the Young Marines, a national nonprofit based in Washington that boasts 12,000 members and 312 units nationwide. Kevin Walkup, a junior at Baldwin High, has known since eighth grade that he wanted to be a Marine.
He found the Young Marines online while searching for ways to prepare himself for a career in the Corps and improve his admission chances to the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I learned if I reach the rank of sergeant and go to boot camp, I can enter the Marines as a (private first class) and earn an extra $3,000 a year,” he said.
Stories like that outrage groups such as Washington-based Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) and the American Friends Service Committee. Anti-war activists charge the Young Marines is a military recruiting tool that targets children as young as 8.
But Young Marines leaders and Pentagon officials say the program doesn’t recruit. The Department of Defense provides about $1 million each year to the Young Marines for its anti-drug efforts, said Capt. Carl B. Redding, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.
The group cultivates a sense of self-worth, trains young people to become leaders and decreases kids’ desire to do drugs, said Michael Kessler, a former Marine infantry lieutenant colonel and the program’s national director.
Western Pennsylvania hosts five Young Marine units with membership ranging from 10 to 40 youngsters each. They accept boys and girls from age 8 through high school graduation, Redding said.
The Pentagon does not track how many Young Marine graduates enter the military “because that is not the mission of the program,” Redding said. But Kessler said some Young Marines officials put the estimate at 10 percent.
Kessler’s program description is little more than rationalization, said Scilla Wahrhaftig, the Pennsylvania program director for the American Friends Service Committee, a Philadelphia-based Quaker group that advocates nonviolence.
“Just look at the name: Young Marines,” Wahrhaftig said. “That indicates the path these children might take. When you dress up children in military uniforms with military training and discipline and guns, they’re going to be influenced.”
Mike Prysner, 25, an Iraq war veteran who took part in the invasion of Iraq, said Young Marines practices “glorify war and the military lifestyle.” The Delray Beach, Fla., resident serves as an organizer for ANSWER.
“They start pounding those things into your head at such a young age,” said Prysner, who spent March 2003 to February 2004 in Iraq and was honorably discharged as a corporal in 2005. “They advance you by how well you follow orders. They teach you to not think critically or creatively.”
Robert Citino, a military historian at Eastern Michigan University and a visiting professor at West Point, said critics of the Young Marines have valid arguments.
“I would be uncomfortable putting my 8-year-old in a uniform,” Citino said, adding that it reminded him of youth groups that existed in pre-World War II Germany and Japan.
“But I’m also uncomfortable with a reflexive anti-anything that has to do with the military — especially in a country that has an all-volunteer force,” Citino said. “The best thing to do if you’re interested is go down to one of their units. Check it out and see if it’s right for you and your kid.”
The Rev. Bob Walkup worried the group was a military recruitment cover when Kevin first told him about it. He went to a Young Marines meeting and left convinced that’s not the case — so much so that he offered his church for the unit’s weekly activities during the summer.
“It’s a discipline tool,” he said. “It’s very akin to what the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts do, teaching accountability and responsibility, but in a military model. And isn’t that what Christianity is all about: to transform us? Certainly not to kill each other, but to transform us.”
Every time a parent or critic voices concern about the Young Marines, Ronald Maxson invites them to visit his unit at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Greensburg. Maxson retired from the Marines as a first sergeant in 1979 after 21 years in the Corps.
“I tell parents I’m not trying to make Marines out of their kids,” said Maxson, 66, of Greensburg. “But I am trying to teach them good positive values: honor, courage, teamwork, responsibility and abstaining from drugs and alcohol.”
Maxson’s Young Marines perform military drills, physical-fitness regimens and military education, but also learn outdoor survival skills, CPR and pet care.
Kessler said the self-confidence created by participating in those types of activities is what deters young people from doing drugs.
“When you let them know they mean something to somebody, drugs are the last things on their minds,” Kessler said.
“The Young Marines are effective in alerting young people to the dangers and consequences of drug use,” said Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, who chairs the House Defense Subcommittee.
Though the Young Marines have existed since 1959, Kessler said the organization’s anti-drug focus began as a pilot program of the Department of Defense in 1993. As part of the federal government’s “war on drugs,” the Defense Department provided $200,000 each to 13 youth organizations, he said.
“We’re just barely a sliver of a much larger program that includes drug interdiction, drug testing and drug-demand reduction,” Kessler said.
Only two of those pilot programs still exist, Kessler said: The Young Marines’ efforts and the Navy’s Drug Education For Youth (DEFY) Program.
There also is a community-service aspect to the group.
“They march in parades, serve as door-greeters, perform color-guard ceremonies,” said Bettina Radcliff, 52, a 12-year staff member of the Keystone unit.
Maxson’s unit visited prisons. The unit based at Christ Lutheran Church in Forest Hills raised money for the American Cancer Society and collected $6,000 worth of toys for underprivileged children.
Radcliff urges critics to come and see for themselves that “we’re not a little Hitler group, building little killers.”
Maxson acknowledges that participating in the Young Marines becomes an advantage for those who want to enter the military.
And Maxson, Radcliff and Kessler brag about graduates who have joined the military. Kessler said only one service academy applicant he recommended for admission was rejected.
“We don’t recruit, but we are giving kids the opportunity to find the hero within,” Kessler said. “We don’t encourage a military career, but we don’t discourage one either.”
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