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thedrifter
09-28-09, 09:00 AM
September 28, 2009
Young Marines march to better life

By CODY GLENN
Staff Writer

VINELAND -- A collective roar of 55 proud Young Marines hollering "Hoo-rah!" echoed through the room, powerful enough to give anyone chills.

The popular U.S. Marine battle cry was a capstone of sorts for New Jersey's first class of Young Marines at the end of their graduation ceremony Saturday afternoon.

Each of the South Jersey Young Marines, tidily dressed in full fatigues, was promoted from recruit to private in the ceremony at Chestnut Assembly of God. It marked the end of an eight-week boot camp filled with push-ups, sound-offs and, most importantly, teamwork for the participants who range in age from 8 to 18 years old.

"This is the best day ever," proclaimed 16-year-old Young Marine Luis Colon of Vineland, who volunteered to make a speech to the large crowd of glowing parents and relatives. After the service Pvt. Colon said, "I worked my hardest to make a speech to let all youth know how it's not just about discipline, it's about courage and bettering yourself."

Prior to enrolling in the new program, Colon admitted, he was slipping into bad habits like fighting and cursing. Now, he said, he's more mature.

"This keeps you out of the bad life," he said. "I'm better in school and have respect for all. All the instructors are awesome, and they helped me a lot."

Colon's grandfather Neri Perez sees the change in his grandson every day.

"It's his attitude," Perez said. "He's better with his schoolwork and better around the house. I'm very happy he learned so much."

There are about 300 comparable Young Marines units throughout the country, but the Vineland-based chapter is the first one established in New Jersey.

The local chapter, with headquarters at Marine Corps Detachment 205 on West Landis Avenue, had a modest base of just four recruits in June. But enrollment quickly ballooned to the 55 who graduated Saturday.

The young men and women are broken down into four squads: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, each with an adult instructor and two youth squad leaders. Each squad comprises boys and girls of mixed ages.

Of the 55 total recruits, about 40 hail from Vineland and roughly 10 are from Millville. A few others live in Lawrence and Bridgeton.

To be promoted to private, recruits had to complete 50 hours of community service, one of the requirements of the two-day-a-week program.

The Young Marines volunteered by performing maintenance at New Jersey Motorsports Park, cleaning Starbound Gymnastics and lending a hand at a food bank in Haleyville, among other projects.

The unit also has plans to partner with the Cumberland County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and work more at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home in Vineland.

'Better citizens'

South Jersey Young Marines Commanding Officer Frank Reyes, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1978 to 1984, spoke of the very first volunteer service event held at the detachment.

"None of them knew each other," he said. "They were all different races and ages. By working together as a team, everyone bonded like a brother and sister would. This tells me they have leadership."

Although the program prides itself on being light on excuses and heavy on discipline and accountability, the group's leader stressed working with children is different than working with adult recruits in the Marine Corps.

"We're not here to make them Marines," he said. "What we're making are better citizens."

Founder Sgt. Gilbert Matos of Vineland, who originally brought the idea up of forming the group during a monthly meeting earlier this year at Detachment 205, spearheaded the local movement.

Then he stepped aside, and Reyes ran with it.

"All these kids want and need is direction. You might not become a Marine, but you're going to become a man and you're going to be proud of yourself. Keep your shoulders back, your head up," Matos urged the young cadets during his speech at the ceremony.

One standout recruit, 13-year-old Ian Parr of Vineland, completed more than 70 hours of community service and was named the most distinguished member of the unit by his commanders. Parr and fellow participants Matthew Peterson, Raul Ortiz, Jamie Rios and Michael Rabb skipped past the rank of private and were named Private 1st Class for their exceptional performance. If the teens decide to enlist in the Marines when they are of age, the distinction means they will enter the military at a higher rank.

"It feels really great to be honored, Parr said. "I didn't know I was getting this award. I'm staying in Young Marines, and when I'm older I am going to become a real Marine. Young Marines gives me discipline and support. If you need direction, this is a good place to go. Great way to straighten out your life."

Pull-ups were among the most grueling moments of boot camp, Parr added.

Kelly Thompson of Vineland, whose 9-year-old son Reginald Thompson graduated Saturday, said she heard about the program through a co-worker. Now she volunteers behind the scenes with the unit.

"Respect was probably the biggest thing I was looking for my son to learn," Thompson said. "Before joining Young Marines, he always put up a fight to do homework and was a little slick with the tongue. Now he's more patient, less shy. I've definitely seen a major change in him."

Now that they're privates, the youngsters who stick with the program are in for a more targeted and more challenging regimen in the months to come, Commanding Officer Reyes said.

The unit is outgrowing its space on Landis Avenue and hopes to get access to a larger venue for drilling, preferably a school gymnasium, he said.

Bruce Cooper, executive officer of the South Jersey Young Marines, said about 30 children already are interested in joining the next class.

"There's a real sense of accomplishment knowing where we came from," said Cooper, who has a background in the Navy and now is a New Jersey state trooper. "We started with only four and people doubted us, but we stayed faithful and kept growing. If we hang in there, we can always make an impact. Especially the young ones like the 8-year-olds. They come in totally confused as a goofy little kid, but they transform to the point they're telling 15-year-olds how to do certain things. We see them grow before our eyes. That's something very dear to my heart."
Additional Facts
MORE INFORMATION


To learn more about South Jersey Young Marines, visit southjerseyyoungmarines.com or call Frank Reyes at (856) 794-8167.

Registration will begin in January or February for the 2010 class. The next boot camp will begin in April.

Ellie