PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Think of them as Boy Scouts with more training, crisper uniforms and rifles.
Well, fake rifles.
According to Mark McLeod, leader of what amounts to the youngest members of the United States military (kind of), the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets offer a taste of soldiering without a contract.
'Rather than signing that piece of paper and you can't quit,' McLeod explained, 'this is a test run for the military.'
That test run, among other things, involves real running. And push-ups, and sit-ups, and nights spent alone in the woods.
'We give them the materials to make their own shelter, and that's what they have to do,' McLeod said.
After rigorous training, of course.
The group, composed of teens from across central Illinois, meet once a month at the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Center off Plank Road. They're more a group of friends, though, than fellow sailors. In the basement of the facility, the group followed McLeod to retrieve their weapons. Rifle training would soon commence.
As they lined up with their weapons, Jackson Crawford, 16, and Daniel Juarez, 16, took the lead.
'Present,' Crawford charged his slightly younger fellow cadets. 'One. Two. Three,' Juarez followed.
'It's amazing,' McLeod remarked of the young Juarez, 'that when he goes command, his voice drops like that.'
McLeod said the group exists to offer a disciplined alternative to traditional extracurriculars. Some cadets go on to serve in the military; others don't. For Crawford, who is home-schooled, being a Sea Cadet is the only thing to be - one weekend a month, that is.
'I can't really say what I'd be doing,' he said, after a moment of thought. 'This is just really fun.'
In the basement of the reserve center, the boys continued their rifle training.
'I just want to say that was really impressive,' McLeod said after a particularly in-sync round of rifle-to-shoulder-floor movement. 'Y'all hit the ground at the same time.'
It's not all fun and games though, as Crawford pointed out after a particularly not in-sync round.
'This is your chance to make an excuse up of why you can't do it,' Crawford reprimanded 16-year-old Rhett Fink.
The Peoria boy, dressed in crisply starched navy and powder blue looked straight ahead, with a face of stone.
As Crawford turned around, Fink flashed a smile. The boy soldier was still a boy.
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