JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - “I came here to turn my life around,” said Bernice Morgan. “I was just hanging around with a bad crowd. If I was still with that crowd, I'd probably end up in jail or become homeless – someone who doesn't really have a future. In honor of my family, I chose to come here.”
“I dropped out of high school,” said Rafael Vicens. “I've wanted to be in the military since I was 12 years old. I was in the [Junior ROTC]. I was searching the Internet for military opportunities and came across the Alaska Military Youth Academy. It seemed like a good idea. They said I could join when I turned 16.”
Morgan and Vicens, cadets at the National Guard Alaska Military Youth Academy Challenge program, are examples of the many different lives Alaska's youth can lead. They enrolled in the AMYA at very different points in their lives, but both had something in common: They wanted to improve themselves.
Rafael Vicens, far right, raises his hand with other cadets during a National Guard Alaska Military Youth Academy tour of the air control tower at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska on February 14, 2015. Vicens volunteered for the academy after dropping out of high school. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett)
Their cycle started Oct. 1, 2014.
“I prepared myself mentally because I knew this is a tough place,” Morgan said. “It's the first time I've been away from my family. The first two weeks were really hard – I cried myself to sleep every night.”
“I'm the first in my family to join,” Vicens said. “The military movie that most appealed to me was 'Full Metal Jacket.' Some people get appalled, but I watched it and said 'that's for me.' I'm interested in [eventually joining] the Marine Corps. My main interest is for college; I want some kind of degree that will help me in law enforcement.”
The mission of the AMYA is to help intervene in and reclaim the lives of Alaska's at-risk youth and produce graduates with the values, skills, education and self-discipline necessary to succeed as adults. The community-based program leads, trains and mentors 16- to 18-year-old Alaskans who have left high school without receiving a credential. The program is a military structured, 17-and-a-half month residential and nonresidential high school.
“I had to get used to getting up [at 6:10 a.m.], doing physical training, time crunches like shower time and schedules,” Morgan said. “After acclimation graduation, things start getting easier. There are times I really want to quit and go home, but I just keep pushing myself. The training leaders say 'You made it this far; why quit?' You finish was you started. I push myself to the limits to finish something that's really hard. My goal is to improve my life and show my friends I can make it through this program.”
“I've really been trying hard here; this is about the hardest I've ever worked in my life,” Vicens said. “I've been motivated since day one.”
Cadets are instructed in the following areas: life coping skills, academic excellence, job skills, responsible citizenship, leadership and followership, health and hygiene, physical fitness and service to the community.
Around 20 weeks into the program, the cadets already noticed change in themselves.
“Going through this program has been helping me a lot with self-discipline and integrity, confidence in myself, knowing that I can be who I want to be,” Morgan said. “I can make myself what I want to be now instead of waiting until later in life ... I thought no one would listen to me and my opinions, but when I became a squad leader or platoon sergeant, they did. In our student government, we're making decisions that will effect the next cycle. I wasn't really a self confident person before I came here.”
“Last Friday, we had the board for court sergeant major,” Vicens said. “I won it; I'm the top cadet of the cycle. [I was] on top of my game in all subjects – academically, physically and behaviorally. I kept a good GPA, always turning in homework on time. I have the ability to help out other cadets who are having trouble academically and physically.”
The cadets also have to work toward completion of their General Education Diploma, high school diploma or credit recovery.
“I enjoy writing a lot [and] I'm a people person,” Morgan said. “I'm going to miss this; I'll miss my fellow cadets and groups here. We're still going to keep in contact. I'm going to take the respect and self-discipline with me. I'll keep my mind open to different opinions and ways of solving problems.
"It's not about what I want; it's about what the group needs.”
“I never really considered myself a leader, but I'm told I've been doing a pretty good job at it,” Vicens said. “A couple weeks ago, I started doing academics in the team leader room. I help out cadets who are on the verge of getting kicked out because they are failing classes. There's this cadet in our social studies class; he's really smart, but he never turns in his assignments. I was just helping him out, keeping him on topic. It's really good having everybody look up to me, making my team leaders proud of me. [That] boosts my confidence. This place is great. I've learned a lot of management and leadership skills. I've met my expectations.”
Their academy schedule included tours of various military units on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to learn about different jobs and experiences. They got to see an F-22 Raptor up close and ride in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. The cadets also took turns carrying various leadership positions; a few weeks at a time.
“I was picked to be the honorary guidon,” Vickens said. “Then I became squad leader, platoon first sergeant, and [finally] all the way to corps first sergeant. I went on a board against other platoons. We tested and I happened to get it. They will pick another corps first sergeant after me; after that I get to keep the rank and I'll be a corps master sergeant, the highest rank in the academy.”
As the big day came closer, the cadets said they looked forward to graduation.
“I still have to finish high school after this, and then I'm going to go to college and finish my education,” Morgan said. “I'm looking forward to my family being at my graduation. They've given me the most support. I want them to see how much I've changed from the person I was before. I want them to see how much I've matured, my self-discipline and focus. I'm pretty excited about that, but I really do love my family with all my heart, and I thank them for supporting my decisions and everything they've done for me.”
“I'm here to improve and be better than I was a year ago,” Vicens said. “I was pretty different; it's been a big change. Now, I wake up every morning extremely motived; ready to go. I'll go back to get my high school diploma; I honestly regret dropping out – I should have stayed in school. I should have gotten all the credits possible and then come here. I'd get even more credits and be ahead in school, graduate early and move on to better things. That's why I came here. I plan to attend another military school in New Mexico, the New Mexico Military Institute. I'm going get my education first and go the officer route. I want a career in law enforcement.”
Morgan and Vicens graduated with their class Feb. 27, 2015.
Bernice Morgan graduated from the residential portion of the National Guard Alaska Military Youth Academy on February 27, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett)
“I want my mom and dad to be proud,” Vicens said. “I want them to see me as someone doing something that matters out there. There are careers that just care about money and themselves, but in the military, you're helping other people. You're actually changing something in society.”
By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett
Provided through DVIDS
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