Dakota Knighten showed up at a Young Marines orientation 14 months ago sporting baggy pants, a sideways cap and a defiant attitude.
“I used to be a little bad kid,” he said.
Young Marines instructors quickly zeroed in on Dakota, yelling at him for refusing to remove his cap and ultimately forcing him to apologize to his mother in front of a classroom full of parents.
“A couple of the parents that were there were in tears,” said Kathy Garner, Dakota’s mother. “They were upset for him, and for me.”
She figured that was the end of the Young Marines for her son.
“But when we got in the car he said he couldn’t wait to come back,” said Ms. Garner, a single mother who brought her son to the orientation hoping to find discipline and direction for the difficult teenager. “I guess he realized that it was something he needed himself.”
Now Dakota, 15, spends every Saturday at the Marine Corps Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway as one of several instructors working with young people who have signed up for the rigorous mental and physical challenge of Young Marines boot camp.
Not everyone who participates needs a big dose of discipline; some just thrive on the challenge of being shouted at while they do push-ups in the mud.
“The mud pits are fun,” said 9-year-old Katie Rieder, who is in boot camp with her 11-year-old brothers. “I like the exercises.”
But for some, the program can be a turning point, said Dakota, a high school freshman from Cleveland, Tenn.
“I went through boot camp; they got to me and I changed,” he said.
The Southeast Tennessee Area Young Marines is part of a national network of Young Marines units for boys and girls ages 8 through 18. Leaders said the program is not used as a military recruiting tool but to strengthen young people physically and mentally.
“We’re not trying to recruit children into the Marine Corps by brainwashing them or anything,” said Lt. Col. Eric Merkle. “Most of these kids don’t wind up enlisting.”
Young Marines run the program with adult supervision, said Sgt. Melvin Taylor, the commanding officer for the area unit. Working with teenagers who are college- or military-bound is his favorite part of the job, though it means giving up a lot of Saturdays, Sgt. Taylor said.
Three of Kimberly Rieder’s four children are in Young Marines boot camp. She enrolled her 11-year-old sons and 9-year-old daughter in the program to help them learn discipline and to challenge them, Mrs. Rieder said.
“I want then to learn to say ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, ma’am,’” said the East Ridge resident.
Her husband is a Vietnam veteran and their children had expressed interest in his military service, Mrs. Rieder said. Katie and Matthew took to the Young Marines program quickly, enjoying the intense atmosphere, Mrs. Rieder said. But their son Quentin struggled, she said.
“Quentin was scared to death,” Mrs. Rieder said. “The first day he just fell apart, and I said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to be able to do it.’”
He sat out the boot camp for a while but kept hearing his siblings talk about the program and decided to give it another shot, Mrs. Rieder said. “Now he loves it,” she said.
William Casper, a retired Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant, helped start the Southeast Tennessee Area unit of the Young Marines program 12 years ago. Now the Cleveland, Tenn., resident oversees all eight units in the state.
“We challenge them,” he said. “We tell them, ‘You think you can’t do something, but we’re going to prove that you can.’”
Some who complete boot camp stick with the Young Marines program year-round and become leaders. Others never come back. And every year some don’t make it through training, he said.
“We’ve got 15 or 16 young people in there now, and we may lose one of them out of this group,” Mr. Casper said.
In addition to the rigorous boot camp, area Young Marines take camping trips, play paintball and have traveled to Paris Island, S.C., and Quantico, Va., said Young Marine Sgt. Maj. Ethan Sarrell, 17. He has attended leadership schools and been to Camp Pendleton, Calif., the last two summers, he said.
Young Marine Sgt. Maj. Sarrell joined the Young Marines as a 12-year-old with an intense interest in the military. Now the high school junior from Dade County, Ga., is the area group’s senior leader.
“I was there to better myself, to make a leader out of myself, to become a better person,” he said.
Now preparing for college, he hopes to attend The Citadel and earn a degree in education. After serving in the Marine Corps he plans to be a high school teacher. And he enjoys being a teacher for new recruits to the Young Marines.
“We have some kids who come from a not-so-good family life, and they become part of our family,” he said. “Regardless of what happens at school or home, at drill they are with their family.”
ABOUT THE YOUNG MARINES
After a 13-week boot camp that meets every weekend beginning in January, the Southeast Tennessee Area Young Marines group meets twice a month throughout the year. The program initially costs $255, which covers uniforms and insurance. Once boot camp is completed, Young Marines can remain in the program for $40 a year. About 800 young people have been through the program in Chattanooga.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about the Southeast Tennessee Area Young Marines, call Sgt. Melvin Taylor at (423) 697-7986 extension 151, or visit www.setaym.com