Military News

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Air Force staff sergeant passes on the light

y Airman 1st Class Kyle Johnson
JBER Public Affairs

7/7/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- It's dark, the walls creep in, leaving just enough room to struggle, but not enough to turn around. There's no going back; in the darkness, a misshapen monster sprints down the tunnel. The only evidence of its power echoes all around: tick ... tock.

If only there was a light, an opportunity, an option. Tunnel vision is a dangerous thing.

According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 15 percent of America's youth are drinking alcohol before the age of 13, 35 percent ingest marijuana before the age of 16, and 17 percent drop out of high school.

The causes for these statistics are many; what may start out as simple curiosity can quickly develop into a dark trap, with no light to be seen.

Sometimes this happens after graduating high school, sometimes it happens sooner.

Programs and agencies litter the frontlines of this battle for America's future, each fighting to shed some light on the lives of at-risk youth. Among them, there is one program that has taken a unique approach and it doesn't fall under the department of education.

It falls under the Alaska Department of Military and Veteran Affairs.

According to their website, the Alaska Military Youth Academy ChalleNGe program is a 17.5 month, quasi-military residential and non-residential high school which uses military values and methodology to reclaim the lives of Alaska's at-risk youth.

Of particular note is the 22-week residential portion, wherein candidates will go through an education and training experience very near to military basic training.

"It's the hardest thing [I've ever done] mentally for sure," said Cadet Cody Smith, who recently passed the 12th week of the program and has lost 35 pounds since beginning the program.

Cadets are assigned a mentor who can communicate with them during their time in the program. Smith's mentor is Air Force Staff Sergeant Erik Fortenberry, fuels distribution supervisor of the 673d Logistics Readiness Group's Fuels Management Flight.

Approximately four weeks into the program, Fortenberry introduced himself to Smith, and began a relationship of edification, guidance, and respect.

When first arriving at the academy, cadets are treated to a heaping pile of shock and awe many military members may recall from basic training.

What follows is two weeks of emotional and physical pressure many of them may have never felt before.

"Yeah, it's tough," Fortenberry said. "But when it comes down to it, do you want to do a couple pushups, or do you want to be in jail?

"They push them a little bit, but it's all for a reason."

Many don't make it, and those that do earn the privilege to be called cadets during a ceremony known as Acclimation Graduation.

"After Acclimation Graduation, I thought 'I can do this,'" Smith said.

The program offers emotional and physical testing, but at its core, it is an accredited academic school.

"They go on ruck marches and they do PT, but it's a learning environment," Fortenberry said.

Classes at the AMYA are dramatically smaller than an average high school, allowing for more one-on-one tutoring a normal school system may not be able to offer.

For many, the AMYA is their last chance to get a high school diploma or General Education Degree so they can stand on their own two feet as they transition into America's workforce.

"Hopefully I'll get my GED and join the military," Smith said. "I wasn't good in school before; this program is the last opportunity for me."

Cadets also get some exciting opportunities while they attend AMYA they wouldn't otherwise be able to experience.

According to their website, one of the things cadets look forward to most is the "adventure training" where cadets get to go out and experience some military-related and outdoor activities.

Each cadet comes from a different background, with a different story and different goals; but they all go through the same experience.

Likewise, each mentor comes from a different background and is volunteering hours and hours of their time to these youth for different reasons.

Fortenberry, a native of Franklinton, Louisiana, arrived at JBER in December 2014, and has been involved in the AMYA mentor program since February this year.

"It really interested me because it was a chance to get involved with some kids who have made some bad decisions and try to get them on the right path," Fortenberry said.

Fortenberry and Smith write each other throughout the week, and the cadets are offered visiting hours where mentors can come and talk to them and encourage them.

"The more I became involved, the more I saw what they do," Fortenberry said. "The more I realized what they are doing for these kids.
"For the vast majority, this program works."

Fortenberry said the program stood out to him because he thinks the military may have very likely saved his life.

"The ultimate reason I became involved in the program is it is a chance for me to be able to give back," Fortenberry said.

As a youth, Fortenberry said he found himself slowly being sucked into a toxic lifestyle.

"I was your typical punk teenager," Fortenberry said. "I always wanted to be hanging out with my friends, and some of them weren't the best of influences."

As he grew older, his friends graduated from bad influences to having adult problems with the law, and Fortenberry began to see what was at the end of his tunnel; he didn't like what he saw.

"There came a point in my life where I looked at myself, the people I hung around with, and I asked myself: Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?
"The answer was no, I don't want this."

Roughly 10 years ago, Fortenberry took ownership of his future in a Panama City, Fla. Air Force recruiter's office. He made a decision that would dramatically alter the direction his life was headed.

"I'm pretty sure that if I had not joined the military, I would either be in jail or dead now."

While AMYA is not designed as a military recruitment tool, it does provide cadets with some of the benefits of military training as civilians.

Fortenberry said he wasn't a bad kid, but he definitely had some bad influences, and it was beginning to show.

"Some of these kids are going through that as well," Fortenberry said. "Except now they have someone who's there to say 'You're going to learn today.' "It teaches humility and it gives them the social skills they need to survive in the outside world."

With the skills they've acquired during their time at AMYA, and the continual guidance of mentors like Fortenberry, cadets are equipped with a toolkit they can use to make a difference in their lives.

"Our role [as mentors] really takes shape when they are out of the program, Fortenberry said.

"[Cadets] who've gone to this program are going to get out and think 'Ok, I want to work for this company, this is what I need to do to get there,'" Fortenberry said.

"Thats where we come in, they tell us they have a job interview or something and we say 'Okay, let me help you, let me set you up to succeed.'
In the end, that's what it's all about; the AMYA succeeds when its cadets succeed.

"It seemed to me like this is a great chance for some of these kids to be taken away from their negative influences and put into a different world," Fortenberry said.

"A world where they have to develop teamwork, communication, physical fitness, education, and they have to use all these different concepts to work together toward the goal of graduating the program."

Sometimes at-risk youth don't see the options in front of them. They're too busy running through the dark.

"I want to show them some things they can do to better themselves," Fortenberry said. "Not just what they've done wrong."

"I want to show them there's a light at the end of the tunnel."

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