Standing at attention, hands clasped behind his back and clad in a camouflage uniform and polished black boots, Sean Dixon, 15, barked out the The Young Marines Creed.
“Obey my parents and all others in charge of me whether young or old. Keep myself neat at all times without other people telling me to,” Dixon recited, eyes fixed straight ahead.
He sped through the rest of the creed: “Keep myself clean in mind by attending the church of my faith. Keep my mind alert to learn in school, at home, or at play. Remember having self-discipline will enable me to control my body and mind in case of an emergency.”
Can Dixon get an oorah?
Dixon, a ninth-grade student at Upper St. Clair High School, is a member of the Washington County Young Marines, a program geared toward developing character and promoting a healthy, drug-free lifestyle, not recruiting young leathernecks.
“I like the training. They train you in values, like common courtesy, but you also learn things like survival techniques, which I think is interesting,” said Dixon, 15. “I wish I would have started the Young Marines when I was younger.”
The Young Marines is open to boys and girls ages 8 through 18, who learn the core values of discipline, leadership and teamwork.
“Our purpose is to create citizens who will excel after high school,” said Unit Commander Keith Hagan, a Balwin Borough police officer who served in the U.S. Navy. His son, Sgt. Garrett Hagan, 14, is an honor student who has been a Young Marine for more than five years. “We try to increase their expectations of themselves. Everything we do, even fun activities, is based on those core values.”
The Young Marines program began in 1958 and now includes 300 units with 10,000 youths and 3,000 adult volunteers.
The Washington unit, sponsored by the Washington County Marine Corps League Detachment 1138, started in 2006 and has swelled from five members to 45 Young Marines who meet about four times a month at the National Guard base at the Washington County Airport.
In many respects, the Young Marines resembles the military: Members do physical fitness drills, march, learn Marine Corps history and rank structure, and endure uniform and boot inspections. Boys can’t have long hair or facial hair.
“We have rules that we want kids to follow because there are rules in society, in school, and someday, in their jobs and they have to know that there are consequences for their actions if they break those rules,” said Hagan.
An important component of the Young Marines is community service. The Young Marines of Washington County, respectful of the service U.S. veterans provided for their country, are involved in many veterans events.
Each year, they participate in Memorial Day and Veterans Day events, lay wreaths at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies, march in the Canonsburg Fourth of July parade, and help out at Toys for Tots and the Blue Ride fundraisers.
All are cardiopulmonary rescucitation- and first aid-certified.
Don Ross of Washington has two sons who are members of the Young Marines, and a third recently graduated from the program.
Ross, a former Marine Corps captain and the owner of the Toffee House, jokingly calls the Young Marines “Boy Scouts on steroids.”
“I think it’s a great program. They learn self-discipline and they gain self-esteem, but the self-esteem comes from actually accomplishing things, not from people telling them nice things about themselves,” said Ross.
His sons, John Paul, 14, and Tommy 10, both “love it,” and a third son, Matthew, graduated from the program. The Rosses have been involved with Young Marines for five years.
“One of things I really like is their involvement with veterans and active duty soldiers, and how they honor the people who have served. It’s great for the kids to be around these guys, some of them going back to World War II,” said Ross.
The Young Marines have spent week-long camps at Parris Island, the Marine Corps recruit depot, and this year will visit the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Va.
They undergo training – learning how to read maps, use compasses, tie knots and rappel – at Young Marines encampments.
Hagan said the Young Marines are proud of the high academic standards (they must maintain a C average) and physical fitness standards they maintain.
“We don’t do arts and crafts, and this is not a boot camp for bad kids. Most of these kids are very successful outside of here.” said Hagan, noting one Young Marine, an eighth-grader, who is taking college classes at West Virginia University.
Lisa Takash of Canonsburg said she has already seen a change in her 9-year-old son, Nathanael, who has a junior black belt in tae kwan do, since he joined the Young Marines last month.
“He’s so excited, and he has taken it so seriously. He’s been a lot more respectful – he’ll say, ‘Yes ma’am,” – and more responsible,” said Takash. “There’s been positive difference in his attitude. It’s been great.”
For additional information on the Young Marines of Washington County, or to sign up as an adult volunteer, visit their website at www.wcyoungmarines.com, their Facebook page at Young Marines of Washington County, or contact Adjutant Joyce Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-746-1996.