Soldiers from 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, are not only serving their country by deploying to Afghanistan, but have also volunteered to serve as role models for at-risk youth currently attending the National Guard's ChalleNGe Youth Corps Program at the Alaska Military Academy on Fort Richardson.
Although the arrangement may appear to be one-sided, the 3-509th Soldiers will also be getting a morale boost from the cadets in the form of letters and care packages for the duration of their deployment.
"This is the second time we have participated in the (Association of the United States Army's) Adopt-A-Platoon program," said Mike Masters, a team counselor with the ChalleNGe program. "We are here to support these Soldiers.".
Toilet paper, cookies, beef jerky, lip balm– whatever the troops need, Masters said all they have to do is request it from the cadets, and the Academy will get it. It's a win, win situation for everyone involved, he said.
"One of my kids said the Soldier he was paired up with was 18 just like he is," Masters said. "I think that's great. It shows what can happen if the right choices are made in life."
The mission of the ChalleNGe program is to intervene in and reclaim the lives of at-risk youth to produce program graduates with the values, skills, education and self-discipline necessary to succeed as adults, Masters said. It's an added plus, that many of participating Soldiers have had life experiences similar to what the cadets had prior to coming to the ChalleNGe program.
For example, 22-year-old Sgt. Steven Boutot, who joined the Army at 18, said he was less than perfect when he was younger. "I'm not going to lie to you, I made some mistakes," he said. "I joined the Army because I needed a change and some discipline." Passing along his life experiences to his cadet is something he said he looks forward to. "Hopefully (he will) take advice from someone who's been there," Boutot said.
According to AUSA's Web site, the Adopt-A- Platoon program is community service-oriented and is designed to bring Soldiers and the local community closer together.
Organizations and businesses representing the public and private sectors volunteer to sponsor units, platoon size or larger, who are deployed or scheduled to deploy overseas.
"I think this is a fantastic program," said 1st Lt. John Kelly, a 3-509th platoon leader.
More than 45 single Soldiers from the 3-509th are participating in the program, Kelly said. Although the Soldiers are currently busy preparing for their upcoming deployment, he said it was important for the Soldiers to take time to meet with their cadet counterparts face-to-face before leaving.
Masters agreed. "Our cadets really need that bonding time. They need a face to go with the name," Masters said. "We found that in order for them to feel any kind of empathy of what our Soldiers do for our country, they need that face-to-face time."
The ChalleNGe program youth are from all over Alaska, Masters said. Many come from villages communities, but the majority of participants are from the Anchorage area. All of the cadets are working toward their GEDs and are gaining essential life skills through the program.
"I really needed to change my life," said Ryan Vicari, 17, adding he decided to join the ChalleNGe program to achieve that change. While at the program, Vicari said he has learned a greater appreciation for the commitment of Soldiers. "They do a lot for our country," Vicari said.