The few, the proud, the kids

Discipline: In Central Maryland, parents looking for a few good children enroll them in the Young Marines. "This is not the Boy Scouts."

May 05, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Her brown hair tucked under a camouflage cap, Jessica Chrzanowski punctuates her sentences with "sir" and "ma'am." She marches in lock step with her fellow recruits. She stands at attention with the military bearing of a sergeant.

Asked her age, she responds obediently, "Nine, sir."

No taller than a rifle, Jessica, of Sykesville, is a member of Carroll County's Young Marines, a program operated by Marine Corps veterans that turns school-age children into raw recruits -- through a rigorous boot camp of reveille, push-ups, sit-ups and marching -- and gives them a strong dose of manners and military values.

Drill sergeants don't soften up on the little ones.

"Rule No. 1: You will be yelled at," Willard G. Mouser, commanding officer of Carroll's platoon, warned his newest recruits.

Rule No. 2: You will accept Rule No. 1 without complaint.

At a recent weekly drill practice at the National Guard Armory in Westminster, one 12-year-old standing at attention couldn't hold back a giggle. He was disciplined swiftly: 10 push-ups.

Trembling, the boy hit the gym floor and struggled to complete them.

"Aren't you a little ashamed about what you call a push-up?" barked Mouser, a retired Marine Corps corporal. "I'm 62. I'll show you a Marine Corps push-up!"

And he did.

"This is not the Boy Scouts," said John Denis, a parent of two Young Marines, Mark and Joey, in the Carroll County unit. "Is it physical or abusive? No. But it is enough to get their attention."

The Young Marines are getting the attention of parents too, who are impressed by the program's effect on their children. Open to boys and girls ages 8 to 18, the group is especially popular among single mothers looking for father figures, organizers say.

"You will notice a change in your children," Mouser told a group of parents recently. "The changes are forever."

The Young Marines, which started in the 1950s in Connecticut, has had a growth spurt in the past decade, from 37 units to 167. Maryland has 11 units, including groups in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel.

"There's a growing awareness that some of the old-fashioned virtues are missing," Mouser said.

Discipline separates the Young Marines from groups such as the Boys Scouts or Girl Scouts, Mouser said: "You have to be one of the best to live up to our standards."

Many don't. Last year, nearly a third of the new recruits dropped out. This year's class of 21 lost four. The survivors graduate tomorrow night.

The breaking point in the 13-week program is a boot camp weekend at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Active-duty Marine drill sergeants scream at and insult the children, a routine aptly nicknamed "shock night."

"We were getting yelled at. I didn't like it," said Jessica.

John Caplinger, 13, said he got reprimanded by a sergeant with foul breath: "He got in my face. I think he ate onions on purpose."

By bedtime, half the recruits were in tears.

"I asked them if they wanted to call home," Mouser said. "First, they said yes. Then I asked them, `What happens next time something is difficult? Do you really want to be a quitter?' "

They all stayed.

Such rough treatment sometimes draws complaints from parents, Mouser said. But he does not apologize: "Some parents say we are not hard enough."

Pam Chrzanowski, Jessica's mother, agreed. "It throws them into reality. All kids need that."

Mouser said the group is not all about marching.

Young Marines are increasingly reaching out to the community. Last year, they collected more than 1,500 Christmas toys for children in Carroll County.

Still, when people see children doing double time in military fatigues, they wonder, "How are they going to get them to act like adults without brain-damaging them?" Denis said.

He assures people that there's no damage. Out of uniform, his sons are not much different from other teen-age boys.

Jessica said she's not different either, though sometimes she is teased by classmates who wonder why she enjoys military drills.

"I don't care," she said. "It's what I want to do."

But not forever. Soon she'll try something else. "Something that's easier," she said. "Maybe dancing."

Pub Date: 5/05/99

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