by 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
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
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
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
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
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
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."