Editor’s note: Senior Cadet David Hernandez (Bravo Company, 1st Platoon Class 45), contributed the following piece on his experiences at the Fort McCoy Challenge Academy. He was among the cadets who helped clean up the former Ontario Elementary School building on Saturday in preparation for its use as a community hall.
The Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy is an alternative educational program designed to reclaim the lives of at-risk youth and produce graduates with the values, skills, education and self-discipline necessary to succeed as adults. At the Academy, there are many ways an individual cadet can succeed. The opportunities at the Academy are endless, such as earning a HSED, joining the military, earning free college credits, as well as having the opportunity to get physically fit. Here at the Academy, Cadets are put to the mental and physical test to see if they have the willingness to change and better themselves. There are two phases here at the Academy that the cadets have to undergo in order to graduate. The first phase, the Residential Phase, is a 22-week program where the cadets live, work out, and get a free education at the Army base in Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. The 12-month Post-Residential phase starts when the graduates return to their home communities to either pursue higher education, get a job, join the service, or volunteer in their community.
Pre-Challenge is the first two weeks of the program where the Candidates first adjust to the physical, mental, and social discipline required to complete the program. The main goal for Pre-Challenge is to develop teamwork, code of conduct, leadership and followership skills, and physically train the candidate to help them reach an elite level of fitness. Candidates learn to replace the negative behaviors and attitudes they were used to before the Academy and substitute that with skills that will lead them to a healthy and structured lifestyle. At the end of Pre-Challenge, Candidates proceed to “A” day, which is the day when the Candidates take the Challenge Academy oath to become successful Cadets.
The lifestyle at the Academy is very different from my past living situation. I wasn’t used to living in a military environment away from my parents, let alone living with people I didn’t even know. Waking up at 5 a.m., doing physical training, learning how to march, learning how to follow the rules, and being motivated was something that was very hard for me. It was hard being away from home, from friends and family, but I came here to change. A lot of my battle buddies here felt the same as I did, but we all helped each other get through the real tough times. It takes a lot of motivation and self-discipline to do the things that are required to graduate. Something I told myself everyday was, “Become comfortable with being uncomfortable so that you can push yourself because no one else is going to do it for you.” I came to the Academy to get out of the deep hole I was in back when I was at home. I was always unmotivated, lazy, I stopped going to school, and I felt like a failure to my parents. Now knowing that I am going to graduate in 10 days, I feel so good about myself and the person who I became.
I did a lot of really fun activities here which I never thought I would ever do in my life. From egg dropping projects, Saturday movie nights, service to the community, team sports, Senior Hall, mock presidential elections with our social studies teacher, and much more. Something that I will never forget is having the opportunity of rappelling down the 34- and 55-foot towers. I have an immense fear of heights and I told myself I couldn’t do it because I was too scared of falling. It was the day where I had to rappel off a 55-foot tower which I knew I wasn’t ready for. But my Team Leader gave me some inspirational words so that I could overcome my fears. He told me, “I have jumped out of planes, swam in the freezing cold ocean, and been through the toughest military training in the world. You may not feel like you can do it, but if you put your mind to it … you can do anything. The body can do miraculous things if you tell yourself you can do anything.” That gave me such a confidence boost that I closed my eyes and jumped off the tower. I felt such an adrenaline rush that when I got the bottom, I wanted to go off the tower again and again.
There are many fun activities here at the Academy that I really enjoy. Something that a majority of the cadets really enjoyed was the road marches. A road march is when the cadets walk for a long distance just to clear their mind and reflect on the day. I really enjoyed the road marches because it gave me some time to just think about what I have done so far and to just get some alone time. This really does help the cadets and the Team Leaders do see that so they try to incorporate that time into our really tight schedules. The way I saw it every day was that every day was a new day to do better than the day before. What I mean by that was that I tried to improve on my character and self-discipline to the right thing when no one was looking. The Cadre staff really does care about the cadets and what they are going through because they want us to succeed. They even make teams for each individual cadet to help them with their P-RAP (Post Residential Action Plan) goals and talk to them about how they are. I am so glad I came to the Academy and I would not have traded this opportunity for anything else.
The Post-Residential Phase is the last phase where the graduates go back to their home and live their goals. What I mean by this is that each cadet makes a P-RAP Goal which consists of your transitional goal, First-Year Goal, and Long-Term goal.My 1st-Year goal is to work full time at a grocery store and save up money for college. My Long-Term goal (2- to 5-year plan) is to attend the Waukesha County Technical College Electrician Apprenticeship program for five years and work for the union after that. Throughout the whole five years at the Apprenticeship, I will only have to pay $10,000 for tuition while I get paid to go to school and work. Our mentors, matched with the cadets during the Residential Phase, support and guide the Cadets through our P-RAP plan.
I highly recommend the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy because it is a great place where young kids like me can change their life. The requirements for the program are: males and females 16&9 months not turning 19, expelled or dropped out, not attending, or over a year behind on credits, not currently on parole or probation, not a felon, and a United States citizen. This is a voluntary program. At the Academy, the Cadre staff ensure that the Cadets are safe and well taken care of. Attending the Academy surely changed my life and helped me put my life back on track. It’s a great opportunity to have a new chance in life and graduate on a clean slate.