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FORT MCCOY, Wis. — Approximately 120 teenagers, arranged in four platoons on a sun-drenched parade field, marked their formal acceptance into the Wisconsin National Guard’s Challenge Academy Aug. 13 by reciting the Cadet Oath.

Having been accepted as a cadet at the Challenge Academy, I do solemnly promise that I will strictly adhere to my cadet general rules and the cadet honor code; that I will begin to use the values of honor and integrity, discipline and courage and commitment as the basis of my conduct; and to the best of my ability, I promise to follow the advice, guidance and instructions of the staff; and that I will seek every opportunity to demonstrate the courage necessary to change my life.

“Over the next few months, you will live this oath,” said Kevin Greenwood, Wisconsin Challenge Academy interim director. “It will become who you are.

sm150813-O-QS269-041L.jpg“Today is special as well for all of us as a staff and the cadre here at the Academy, in that we’re entering this new phase with you,” Greenwood continued. “We’re on this journey with each and every one of you, and we look forward to helping you in meeting all of your goals. We’re here to help you today, tomorrow, next week, next year.”

Three weeks earlier, 156 at-risk teens from communities across Wisconsin arrived at Fort McCoy to take part in a program that deconstructs bad habits and poor choices and in their place instills self-discipline, commitment and good choices. Nearly 40 candidates did not pass the challenging three-week audition.

“The first three weeks of the program is what we call ‘pre-Challenge’ — the final selection process for them to be accepted into the Challenge Academy,” Robert Phillips, a Wisconsin Challenge Academy team leader, explained. “In that first three weeks we have a lot to teach them about the basic day-to-day life here at the Academy so that they can be successful once we start academics and all the other activities we do. If they can make it through those three weeks and do what they’re supposed to do, then they can become cadets. It’s a big step.”

The cadets acknowledged how challenging those first few weeks were.

sm150813-O-QS269-019.jpg“It was rough,” said Isaac Repetto of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. “The team leaders really got in your face, made you go to lengths of physical training you didn’t think you’d be able to do. But they didn’t just push you because they wanted you to leave — they pushed you because they were preparing you for what comes later in the program. You’ve got to just push through the first three weeks, ‘cause it will all be worth it in the end.”

Jayce Brooks-Edgar, a cadet from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, said he thought about going home every day during the pre-Challenge phase.

“But the only thing that kept me here was picturing in my head walking across that stage and having my parents and my family actually being proud of me, seeing that I actually accomplished something for myself,” Brooks-Edgar said.

“It was really hard getting up at 5:30 in the morning and seeing 35 other girls standing there,” said Haley Tanton of Sparta, Wisconsin. “The PT (physical training) was not fun, at all.”

Tanton also had to adjust to eating meals quickly.

“The first four days was very hard to adjust to the new structure — everything around us was very new,” said Lexus Lambert of Tomah, Wisconsin. “After a few days it got easier and easier. If you listen and not go against the orders given to you, then you will understand more how everything happens and you won’t get into as much trouble.

“Everything is a lot better if you listen,” Lambert continued. “I was more talkative, so I had to do a lot more pushups, but I definitely learned my lesson not to talk out of turn.”

Cadet Shawna Pomeroy of Cashton, Wisconsin, described the first three weeks as “life-changing.”

“I’m way more self-disciplined than I have been ever in my life,” Pomeroy said. “The first couple of days were the hardest of my entire life because I’ve never been told what to do or how to act properly, so it was just really hard adjusting and having to eat all this food and drink all this water, but it’s gotten way better. Every day is easier.”

Cadet Trevon Haynes of Milwaukee said he had an easier adjustment to the quasi-military environment at the Wisconsin Challenge Academy, thanks to his earlier involvement in Royal Rangers, an Assemblies of God youth program similar to Boy Scouts.

“What made it hard was when people get in a new environment they’re not used to, they’re used to doing what they want to do, and this ain’t that,” Haynes said. “[The Challenge Academy staff] tell you to follow their rules — they will not conform to our standards, we will conform to theirs. I like it — I like the structure.”

Challenge Academy cadets follow a tight schedule each day. Their day begins between 5:20 and 5:30 a.m. for an hour of physical training, followed by barracks cleaning and personal hygiene. After breakfast, one company of cadets attends four hours of classes — math, English, social studies, science and character development — while the other company of cadets performs community service, laundry or other activities. After lunch, the two companies trade places. After the evening meal, cadets attend study hall and have up to an hour of time to take care of personal tasks before the lights go out at 9 p.m.

Challenge Academy team leaders say this regimented environment is crucial to the cadets’ success.

“We are not a boot camp,” said Jennifer Fuerst, who has been on the Wisconsin Challenge Academy staff for five years. “A lot of people mistake us for that because of the quasi-military background, but that is our method for maintaining control of 120 cadets at one time.

“This program is their last chance to get back on track, to help them become a respectable, responsible citizen, help them earn their HSED,” Fuerst continued. “We work a lot on their future, setting plans and goals and what they need to do to reach those.”

Phillips said the typical cadet has struggled in a regular school environment for various reasons.

“Instead of looking down on them, we need to look up to these kids because they’re willing to step forward and say they made a mistake, they weren’t going in the right direction and they’re willing to fix it,” Phillips said.

Some of the cadets spoke of heartbreaking lives prior to arriving at Challenge Academy.

“I lost my father when I was 14 — he was killed in front of me in Milwaukee on 17th and Locust,” Haynes said. “I gave up my ninth grade year. With me finally gaining a little confidence back, I lost my brother nearly six months ago. I pretty much gave up. I had some friends who went through this program, a cousin who went through this program, and they succeeded. I felt like this could help me.”

Lambert said she never attended school.

“I’d ride the bus there, but I’d leave every day,” she explained. “I never had the motivation to go to school — I was always bullied at school — and things kind of went downhill.”

Lambert began using drugs and running away from home, which led to an unenjoyable stay in a group home.

“After I got out of the group home I realized I needed to change my habits, otherwise I’d end up in jail and that’s not where I want to be,” Lambert said. “So I came here to the Challenge Academy, and I’m already changing — I can feel it.”

Tanton shared a similar story.

“I was doing drugs, running away, in and out of detention centers and group homes, and just disobedient to my parents,” Tanton said. “My grandma really wanted me to come here and I had a friend from last class who came here, and I saw how it changed him — it really influenced me to come here.”

Pomeroy described heavy drug and alcohol use over the previous 18 months.

“I would get drunk every night — I thought it was so fun to get drunk around your friends,” Pomeroy recalled. “I got truant and had to go to a group home for a while, and I remember sitting in a juvenile detention holding cell thinking I’ve really got to change. When I got out of the group home I moved back to Wisconsin because I’ve never gotten in trouble there and I signed myself up for the Wisconsin Challenge Academy.”

Brooks-Edgar spoke of many missed opportunities to get on track.

“I was failing out of school, hanging out with a bad crowd of kids, so I really wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. “I haven’t made my parents proud in so long, and I thought this would really do it for them.”

Fuerst characterized what the cadets described experiencing as “a drastic change.”

“They’ve gone from not wanting to be here and being homesick to not wanting to leave here,” Fuerst said. “We push them through the entire program. They start to realize they need to take responsibility, and toward the end they’re getting up on their own, they’re doing what they need to do to get going through the day.”

Phillips spoke of seeing confidence develop in the cadets.

“They come in with a lot of attitude, but in reality there’s not much behind it,” Phillips said, “and you see them finally start to believe in themselves. They realize they can do something. A lot of them have been told from a young age that they’re not capable of doing anything or they’re not going to amount to anything. In reality, anybody will if they try hard enough.

“That’s what we see, those kids getting that self-confidence and realizing they can do good things.”

Pomeroy said she was looking forward to learning additional skills in the coming months.

“I’m already learning how to be self-disciplined, but I want to learn more integrity and more things so I can be successful when I leave here,” Pomeroy said. “And I’m really, really looking forward to standing on that graduation stage and looking at my family and the people who have been there throughout my life supporting me, and having them proud of me.”

Haynes praised the academic training — “I’ve learned so much in a week, [more] than I learned in years,” he said — and wants to develop as a leader.

“I’m learning my weakness and my strengths,” Haynes said. “I know my strengths, but I’m finding out my weaknesses — I have no patience, I have an anger problem. They’re working with us and teaching us, and I’m starting to understand why we went through what we went through in those three weeks.”

Lambert was looking forward to a few less lofty, and more immediate, rewards.

“The desserts we will start getting, and the movie snacks, and more field trips,” Lambert elaborated. “During pre-Challenge, we got a little taste of a field trip to UW-La Crosse, and that was pretty amazing.”

Tanton admitted she looked forward to Kool-Aid that afternoon, but also to things of more enduring value.

“Hopefully we’ll be doing more platoon exercises, like team building,” Tanton said. “We are pretty close so far, but I hope we get closer.”

Repetto echoed those sentiments.

“I really look forward to the ropes course here and the rappelling,” he said, “but most of all I look forward to graduation day and seeing my mom, my aunt and my little brother smiling at me as I walk across the stage.”

Pomeroy said the Wisconsin Challenge Academy provided her with the first sense of structure in her life.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Pomeroy said. “I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is or where I’m going to sleep tonight — it’s amazing that for the next five months I don’t have to worry about that.”

Greenwood spoke of witnessing the commitment and passion the Challenge Academy staff have for working with cadets, and how that can bear fruit even when it seems hope is lost.

“You never want to see a cadet go home or a candidate go home,” Greenwood said. “It’s tough to see them go home, and I have a deep respect for the staff and cadre having to see that happen cycle after cycle. But it doesn’t mean those cadets aren’t going to come back at another time. We’ve got cadets who took the oath today who were here before, and the timing wasn’t right for them. They recognized it, and they committed themselves to coming back, and now they’re standing in a formation today taking an oath and setting a course for their lives.”

Pomeroy heartily endorsed the tough-love program.

“I would never have guessed in a million years that I’d ever be waking up at 5:30 in the morning taking orders from somebody, but it’s really worth it because you’re going to become an amazing person,” she said.” You’re going to succeed in society.”

Jonathon Burbach, the commandant of cadets, congratulated the cadets after the oath-taking ceremony.

“You have shown that courage, you have shown that commitment, and you are now a cadet,” Burbach said. “You’ve accomplished a lot so far, but you have a lot more to accomplish. You have a long ways to go and a lot of work to do.

“But you can do it, and you’ve shown so far that you have what it takes,” he continued. “Let’s move forward and do what you need to do.”