Every Tuesday evening a group of teens and preteens gather at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1000 in Independence to learn the inner values of honor, courage and commitment.
Wearing military boots and camouflaged uniforms, these youth represent Young Marines, the focal point for the U.S. Marine Corps Youth Drug Demand Reduction Program.
Sponsored by the Marine Corps League, Young Marines is a youth education and service program that promotes the mental, moral and physical development of its members, age 8 through high school. The program also promotes a healthy, drug-free lifestyle, while focusing on character building, leadership and community involvement.
The Independence unit, which has helped shape the lives of scores and scores of youngsters since its inception some nine years ago, finds itself at a crossroad. Whether it continues to meet the needs of these children hinges on acquiring a commander.
“The Independence unit has been without a direct, involved commander for the past two or three months,” says Les Miller, regimental commander of Missouri Young Marines.
Les says the former leader, who was temporarily assigned to the post, didn’t like the idea of being the unit commander.
“He thought temporary meant temporary.”
Since the former commander stepped down, the 80-year-old former Grandview Marine has been doing extra duty best to keep the Independence unit vibrant and afloat.
Les, who helped organize the first Young Marines unit in the metropolitan area in 1995, is standing in as acting commander until a new one emerges.
A member of the Young Marines Area Coordinating Council, Les has pleaded and begged the council for assistance.
“But no luck yet,” he says dejectedly.
Les, though, hasn’t thrown in the towel. He knows his fellow Marines won’t abandon him. After all, “Marines stick together.”
A gyrene for two and one-half years (1946-48), Les has issued an SOS pleading for Marines to step forward and take command of the unit that is on shaky ground.
If his SOS falls on deaf ears, there could be one less unit in Missouri and none in Independence.
The possibility of losing the local unit is a “huge concern,” Les says, because there are children in the unit who are unable to attend other area units because their parents don’t have the money to drive them a greater distance to another unit.
A unit commander doesn’t have to be a high-ranking Marine with lots of ribbons and medals. Anyone who has ever served in the U.S. Marine Corps is eligible. However, the commander should be a level-headed person interested in developing children, Les says.
“We would like to have a Marine as commander of every unit. But we don’t always get that.”
Many of the dedicated adult volunteers in the Young Marines program are former, retired, active duty or reserve Marines who believe the values they learned as Marines had a positive affect on them.
In Young Marines, the commander is not your typical Marine Corps drill instructor.
“We don’t get in their face at all,” Les says. “We are not allowed to touch the kids, other than for instructional purposes.”
The program, which Les describes as “a cross between Boy Scouts and ROTC,” is not designed to train participants for military combat.
“We’re there to help them realize they have to take responsibilities for themselves and their actions and get them to do it right,” he explains
Young Marines is not all training and no fun. It’s a mixture of both.
“We try to keep the kids out of gangs and away from drugs, and have some fun along the way. We have campouts, swim parties and things like that for them (to do),” he says, noting recreation is part of every two-hour meeting.
The Independence unit has had its success stories, like the young man who earned a scholarship to an East Coast military school. Following graduation, his gracious parents told Les that had it not been for Young Marines, they are positive their son would have fallen by the wayside.
Then there was the severely handicapped youth who refused to let his disabilities be a hindrance or a distraction to his unit. Unable to stand at attention with the others, he did the next best thing. He got out of his chair and stood at attention on his knees.
Another time, the handicap youth wanted to participate with his unit in a parade in nearby Missouri City. Being unable to march, though, didn’t keep him out of the parade. He found someone to push his wheelchair while he proudly led the marchers carrying the guideon.
Most of the participants never become Marines. They undergo the discipline and physical, mental training to improve their lives, Les says, taking with them all the Marine Corps values that had a positive affect on their lives.
The great-great-grandpa says he resigned his seat on the Grandview Park Board in 1995 to devote the rest of his life to the Young Marines, even though none of his children or grandchildren were in the program.
Les is sold on the community-based program. Now, let him sell you on the benefits of becoming an adult volunteer or unit commander in Young Marines.
Please give him a call at 816-761-7547 or e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Les wants to talk to you. He really does. You may become the unit savior.