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Training camp gives kids glimpse into Navy life and teaches life skills

The USS Little Rock saw plenty of action this week, but not the kind you might think.

More than 100 youngsters called the ship home last week as they took part in the U.S. Navy League Cadets boot camp program, a one-week glimpse of life in the Navy, which is designed to foster an interest in the sea services.

"This is one of the finest training programs, and it's right here in Buffalo," said Kenneth Hall, lieutenant commander of the Sea Cadet Corps, who has run the national boot camp in Buffalo since its inception eight years ago. "It gives [cadets] the opportunity to learn about military discipline along with important life skills."

The program for youths ages 10 to 13 also serves as an introduction to the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps program, in which recruits ages 13 to 18 complete a more rigorous two-week boot camp, featuring a more advanced program that uses the same textbooks and correspondence courses as the Navy.

Many of the Sea Cadets served in leadership roles for the League Cadets and conducted most of the drills and physical training sessions during the boot camp.

The co-ed program is structured similar to that of the military reserves. Cadets train at their home unit -- for the Buffalo unit, either the USS Little Rock or the Naval Operations Support Center on Porter Avenue -- one weekend a month plus one week in the summer.

Jessica Schad, 18, is an eight-year veteran of the program who transferred from her unit in Ohio to be able to train at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park.

"The first time I came to Buffalo for training it was just amazing," said Schad who has almost completed both programs and earned the rank of petty officer 2. "Having access to these ships provides such a great hands-on learning experience."

The League Cadets program is a scaled down version of military boot camp and holds many of the same traditions and values, such as patriotism, courage and self-reliance.

Hall runs a tight ship. The first and last words cadets speak are "sir" or "ma'am." Training starts with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up to the clangor of pots and pans followed by physical training. Cadets undergo a daily barracks inspection and are afforded 90 minutes of free time per day to read or write letters.

Elijah Haner, 13, who is in his second year with the League Cadets, said the program has taught him the importance of responsibility.

"They teach us about good behavior and how to take care of ourselves," said Elijah, who is entering seventh grade at North Tonawanda Middle School. "[The program] has also helped me become a better student."

The program, subsidized by the Navy, costs $150 per cadet for the summer camp along with an $80 yearly membership fee. Boot camp is chaperoned by 14 adult volunteers, including two registered nurses.

While no military obligation is required, Hall said many of his former cadets have gone on to serve in the armed forces. Cadets who complete the program are eligible for promotions, if they choose to enlist. He said he was proud to point out that one of his former cadets recently returned home from combat with the Purple Heart and another was recently accepted into the Naval Academy.

"They're a wonderful bunch of young people," Hall said. "To watch them grow up and become self-sufficient -- That's our paycheck."