FORT MCCOY, Wis. — Back-to-school activities came early — July 23 — for more than 150 high-school-aged teens from communities across the state.
Seeking to make significant and positive changes in their lives, these teens traded in the last few weeks of summer vacation, free time and privacy for a shot at redeeming wasted opportunities — a seat in the 22-week Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy.
Teens signed in at the Wisconsin Military Academy, a Wisconsin National Guard professional development facility at Fort McCoy. They inventoried their few personal belongings, said good-bye to their parents or families, and boarded a van to the Challenge Academy campus a few blocks away on post.
There the males would receive very short haircuts — the females typically requested just a trim. They would be issued academy uniforms — white T-shirts, gray gym shorts and sweat suits. They would locate their living space, shared with 30 or more classmates in circa-1942 barracks. And they would begin learning the rules governing academy candidates — they will not be considered cadets until they make it through the first few weeks of unlearning bad habits and adhering to new habits.
“Our core values — discipline, integrity, honor, courage and commitment — that’s really at the heart of what we’re going to be doing with your kids for the next five months, teaching them the art of self-discipline,” Peter Blum, deputy director of admissions, recruitment and public relations for the Wisconsin Challenge Academy, told parents after they had said farewell to their children. “Teaching them to have courage when later on today they want to give up on themselves and quit.”
The Wisconsin Challenge Academy uses a military setting — Army barracks, discontinued military uniform items, a regimented daily schedule, and “cadre” who function as instructors, coaches and mentors — to disrupt the comfortable pattern of poor life choices and instill a mindset of choosing the hard right over the easy wrong.
But Challenge Academy staff were quick to dispel any misunderstandings between military setting and military obligation during briefings to academy candidates.
“This is the National Guard Youth Challenge Academy, but you are not in the National Guard,” Jonathon Burbach, commandant of cadets, told a group of candidates. “You are in a youth program that is overseen by the National Guard. Don’t tell anyone you’re in the military, don’t tell anyone you’re in boot camp, because that’s not true.”
Some nervous parents needed their own reassurances.
“It won’t be like no ‘Full Metal Jacket’ environment, nobody screamin’ at them?” one man asked.
“No,” Blum responded. “We will be tough with them — there will be command voices. They will definitely be pushed and we use a basic training model to help teach the art of self-discipline, but it can’t be demeaning, it shouldn’t be insulting.”
Across post, Burbach explained that point to Academy candidates.
“We will treat you in a professional military manner,” Burbach said. “That means firm and fair. We will treat you with respect — we will not make fun of you or call you names. But if you’re looking for a place with friendly customer service, this is not it.”
Blum told parents and family members that Challenge Academy works because it is a voluntary program, and their children can “volunteer out” at any time.
“Change is painful,” he explained. “No one will ever force your kids to change — they have to do it within themselves.”
Burbach echoed that statement as he welcomed candidates to Challenge Academy.
“I want to congratulate you because you have made a very important step,” he said. “Obviously all of you have recognized that something in your life needs to change, and you chose to come here to take that first step. You have a long way to go, but many people never take that first step.
“Treat this academy, treat this experience like a job,” Burbach continued. “With a job you have a boss and you have employees. What happens at a job if the employee doesn’t do what they’re supposed to do? They get fired. We’re the boss and you’re the employees. We’re going to pay you in experience, in skills, in discipline, in education — all things where you need to be successful.”
Blum warned that culture shock and homesickness will be the biggest initial obstacles for academy candidates, and that family support is crucial. Most teens who leave the Challenge Academy program will do so in the first three weeks. He urged families to send daily letters of encouragement, and acknowledged that this can seem a daunting task.
“I can write, ‘I love you.’ I can write ‘I’m proud of you” on a postcard and put it in the mail,” Blum said. “It’s more about the connection every day.”
He warned that their teens may send letters that sound as if they came straight out of “Camp Granada.”
“I call them the ‘Woe me’ letters, the ‘Woe me’ phone calls,” Blum said. “Some of you will get a first letter and be shocked by the positive attitude. But there will be a percentage of kids who will write home saying ‘I can’t do it, it’s too hard, they expect too much of me, this is too difficult,’ and so on.
“First of all, don’t believe any of it,” he continued. “From their perspective, and relatively speaking, is it difficult? Absolutely, it’s difficult for them. But we don’t push them beyond their capabilities. If they struggle emotionally they’re going to have a counselor to talk to. The staff are tough, fair, firm and consistent, but they also know when to go into coaching and mentoring mode.”
If anything, Blum said Challenge Academy candidates and cadets get an overabundance of second chances.
“From our perspective, we’re changing years of habits,” Blum said. “We need to be patient with them as they work on their habits.”
He recommended parents allow their children visit their friends during two scheduled home visits.
“We want them to go home and see their friends,” Blum emphasized. “We want them to go home and see the world that they’re going back to. Being here for three months, this almost becomes their world. When they go home and then they come back, it’s kind of neat because invariably they’ll say, ‘my friends have changed.’”
Burbach encouraged incoming candidates to make a fresh start.
“I don’t really know what your reputations are like back home,” Burbach said. “There may be many people back home who have given up on you, who don’t think you’ll ever amount to much. But we don’t know about that, and it doesn’t matter to us. You are building a new reputation starting today based on your decisions and based on your behaviors.
“You could be the worst of the worst back home, and you could graduate from this program as our honor graduate,” he continued. “That is possible. But you have to make that choice, and it starts today.”
Blum warned parents that as their children make personal changes at Challenge Academy, they may return home with heightened expectations of changes there as well.
“What little, or bold, thing could you do to show your kid you’re walking with them?”
Angela, a Milwaukee mother, said her 16-year-old son Antonio was looking for more structure and discipline.
“It’s actually quite exciting, because I’m really proud he made the decision to come here, and he’s very excited to be here,” she said. “He’s looking forward to changing and putting his life on a forward path. I’m nervous but excited and proud at the same time.”
Angela said she plans to make changes as well.
“I want to give him something,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be getting up at 5:30 every day or just something so that he understands that he’s not alone, that I think about him every day.”