Getting in Step with the Sea Navy League Program Preps Teens for Service

Article excerpt

ST. MARYS -- Heather Cross, 14, rises before the sun.

She gets out of her bunk bed and adjusts the sheets, painstakingly pulling wrinkles out of the fabric by tugging it through wire loops under the bed.

It's not how most teenagers would choose to spend the summer, but Cross, a ninth-grader at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, volunteered for this chore and others when she signed up to become a Navy League sea cadet.

She and fellow sea cadet First Class Airman Marcus Alexander, a Camden County High School junior, are serving as counselors this week at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base's annual Navy League-sponsored boot camp for 11- to 13-year-olds.

The aim is to shape these young people's military bearing, integrity and citizenship. The counselors are also trying to prepare them to join the sea cadets when they turn 14.

Sometimes it's a tough job.

The U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps is a hands-on training program that encourages teens to develop an interest in seamanship and trains them in basic seagoing skills. Sea cadets train aboard Navy and Coast Guard ships and at shore commands. They are sponsored by the Navy League, a non-profit group whose main objective is to support the U.S. maritime services.

There are about 7,000 sea cadets in units nationwide as well as in Britain, Guam and Puerto Rico.

Mindy Kehoe, 12, of Brunswick, said getting up about 5 a.m. is hard, but she's enjoying the experience.

"I usually don't get up until 11 a.m.," she said. "Here you don't have any choice. They bang on the door until we get out of bed."

The cadets learn to depend on each other to get the job done -- or to avoid more work.

"We use teamwork and we depend on each other to pass inspections," said Matthew Mulch, 12, of Spring Hill. "Otherwise we'll have to do pushups."

Robert Sears, 12, of Brunswick said he's done enough pushups to learn the value of a clean room.

"I just can't get used to making my bed and keeping the room so clean," he said. "I'm living with a neat freak."

His peers say that's because in the military no one can afford to mess up.

"I've definitely learned to be more respectful and motivated," said Joshua Lewis, 12, of St. Marys Middle School. "If one of us messes up we all suffer."

This group came on Friday and will leave Sunday looking different than when they arrived. No matter how they came to the program, instructors say, they will leave with a shorter haircut, a straighter stance and more self-confidence.

Sea cadets study a range of subjects including naval history, traditions, seamanship and navigation -- topics that might help their chances for a promotion should they decide to join one of the sea services.

Bill Cross, an adult volunteer with the sea cadet program, said it made a huge change in his children.

"My son was the first person in our family to become a sea cadet," he said. "He was a different kid after the experience. He literally matured overnight. It's made a huge difference in my two kids. Both of them respect each other's property and Mom and Dad's a lot more."

Cross, who now wears the uniform of a junior officer because even volunteers must follow military protocol, said he would recommend the program to any parent.

"Overall this is one of the best things our family has done," he said. "The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts are great organizations. …