Program Looks for a Few Good Teens

Times Staff Writer

Far from the streets of Baghdad, 17-year-old Capt. Richard Medina leads a small group of teenagers at Camarillo Airport in their first steps toward military careers.

Outfitted in Army fatigues and combat boots, the group of about 30 Ventura County youths rush out onto the airport runway, where they practice their drills under the shadow of two World War II transport planes.

Medina, a Santa Paula High School honors student, is in charge of the cadets. Raising his sword high in the air, he shouts commands at his underlings as the night's opening ceremony begins, followed by two hours of training.

It's a typical once-a-week exercise for the Ventura Military Explorers, a training and development program for teenagers interested in the military life. The program is run by active and retired service members and is open to youths ages 12 to 21.

Eager and determined to make something of their lives, the fresh-faced cadets seem unfazed at the prospect of entering the service in a time of conflict overseas. In fact, for many of these future soldiers, the war on terrorism has only served to solidify their career decisions.

"I just want to get started," said Christopher Udoji, 17, an Oxnard High School senior who heads to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego in June. "Through the years, people have sacrificed for this country. I've decided that now that person is going to be me."

Now in its fourth year, the Explorers program has carved out a niche in a county where military traditions run deep -- the Navy is the region's largest employer, with more than 14,000 personnel -- but opportunities for training while in school are limited.

Currently, there are only two Junior ROTC programs in the county's high schools, with a separate program for students interested in the Air Force. In those programs, students learn traditional drills, military history and leadership skills. But they usually do it within the confines of a single branch of the military.

The Explorers program is different because, while sponsored by a Navy unit at Point Mugu, it does not emphasize any specific branch of the military, officials said. The 12 instructors stem from four service branches: the Navy, Army, Marines and Air Force.

Members of the Ventura Military Explorers program -- one of about four in Southern California -- pay an initial $95 enrollment fee and attend Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, hang out with Army units at Camp Roberts near San Luis Obispo and fly aboard Navy aircraft at Point Mugu.

"This is one of the few places where you can get a well-rounded military experience," said Army Lt. Col. Pat O'Doul, who teaches military customs, courtesies and history. "It's what you would join if you want to learn a little bit of everything."

Three of the program's approximately 75 graduates have gone on to West Point. Many of the 44 cadets enrolled in the current program come from military families, and those who plan to enter the service said it was something they planned before the terrorist attacks two years ago.

At least a dozen Explorers end up dropping out of the program each year, deciding that a service career and the unpredictable and sometimes dangerous life that goes with it is not for them, officials said.

Eric Vanoni, 18, has been an Explorer for about six years, and though he enjoys the activities the program offers, he has decided the military doesn't quite suit him. He had dreamed of flying at one point, but now is more into cars and is looking into a career in engineering, he said.

"I've changed my mind, but it's been fun," Vanoni said. Without the Explorers, "I probably would have joined the military and not enjoyed it. I realized that I have a little bit of a problem with authority."

Most cadets are junior high school age and up, and they are all business when it comes to their participation in the program.

On a recent chilly night, Angela Vanoni, Eric's sister and a 15-year-old basic platoon sergeant with two years of Explorers experience under her belt, was whipping the rookies into shape.

Thirteen-year-olds Eric Navarro, Jake Mesner and Ryan Rullman are relatively new to the Explorers and were still learning basic drills.

"Attention!" the petite Vanoni yelled. "I want to see sharp facing movements!"

When the three boys were asked their names by a visitor, it was clear they hadn't yet become accustomed to some of the military's courtesies, either.

"You know the word 'ma'am' don't you?" barked the unit's usually mild-mannered training and education officer, Floyd Davis.

"They'll get this in no time," he said outside of the boys' earshot.

As for Capt. Medina, he says his family is proud. If his grandparents -- who have raised him since he was about 10 years old -- worry about his safety, they never mention it to him. Medina, who has had his share of classroom debates about the war in Iraq, can't think of a better way to spend his youth than flying fighter planes for the Air Force.

"I could be an FBI agent or a police officer, but there's something about the military that is more direct," he said. "I'm trying to do something big. I'm not staying in Santa Paula and having a 9 to 5."

He has received what is known as a letter of assurance from the United States Military Academy at West Point. That means the school has already reviewed his grades and is holding a spot for him. He must now pass a physical and receive an official nomination from his local congressional representative.

For Medina, West Point and whatever follows offer an escape from dusty, semi-rural Santa Paula. His grandfather, a retired city worker, and his grandmother, a cashier at a pharmacy, probably would not be able to afford an expensive college education for him, he said.

When he is asked why he would enter the military during such a chaotic time, he explains that "being a pilot in the U.S. Air Force is a relatively safe job."

"More than likely I may be in combat, but you go into this job knowing that your life will be in danger," Medina said. "It's a chance we all take. Life would be pretty boring if we didn't take chances."

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