Rumsfeld Urges Guard Youth Program Members to Aim High
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2006 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged about 60 members of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program here today to dream big and reach for the stars as they seek ways to serve their country and its ideals.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld poses with members of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program during the group's visit to the Pentagon Feb. 28. Photo by Helene C. Stikkel
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Rumsfeld reminded the group -- high school dropouts at risk for substance abuse, teen pregnancy, delinquency and criminal activity who are turning their lives around through the program -- that they're coming of age at a momentous time in U.S. history.
"Our country is at a point -- and you are at a point -- where our future is going to depend on you and how you live your lives," he told the group during its Pentagon visit. "Our future will be written by your generation."
Rumsfeld congratulated the young people, ages 16 to 18, on their decision to join the National Guard Youth Challenge Program and to reach for their full potentials. Regardless of where they come from, what their circumstances are or where they stand along life's path, all have the opportunity to succeed, he said.
"We live in a nation where literally anybody can succeed, and the limits really are only self-imposed," he said. "And to the extent that we have the strength and initiative and confidence and dream high, we can accomplish an enormous amount ... much more than any of us ever imagined."
Rumsfeld called members of the U.S. armed forces role models of service to their country who give all Americans the opportunity to enjoy the freedom that enables them to pursue their personal dreams. "They are all volunteers. Every single one of them raised their hand and said they want to serve our country. And they clearly are some of the finest human beings in the world," Rumsfeld said.
These military members ensure that the United States remains a country "where the limits are really up to us," the secretary said. "And that's why the men and women in uniform sacrifice so much and put their lives at risk to preserve our liberty and our freedom and the opportunities it provides for each of us - for each of you and your fellow citizens."
But success doesn't come without hard work and commitment, a lesson Rumsfeld said was reinforced for him during his years as a wrestler. "Each of you has already taken on some tough tasks at your young ages and have worked hard to try to forge a better future for yourselves," he said. "You've learned the relationship between application and effort and results."
Rumsfeld told the group members he hoped their Pentagon visit would remind them how fortunate they are to live in a country that offers them opportunity. He urged them to become "an important force for good" in the country and to allow themselves to become like pebbles in a pond, with their ripples going out to those they touch in their lives.
Raquel Correa, a 17-year-old National Guard Challenge Program member from Montana, said she felt inspired by the secretary's words. "It really meant a lot to hear it from him," she said. "I think he believes in us and believes that this program can change us and mature us and how we act and grow to be as people."
"It was a very good meeting," said Greg Sharp, president and executive director of the National Guard Youth Foundation after the session. Sharp said he was particularly pleased to hear the secretary's enthusiasm about the National Guard Youth Challenge Program. "I'm very hopeful he'll look at expanding the program," he said.
The community-based program, run by the National Guard Bureau and managed by the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, leads, trains and mentors at-risk youth to instill the values, skills, education and self-discipline needed to succeed as adults, Sharp explained. That's critical in light of what he called "a huge crisis in our country," with one in three young people dropping out of high school. That's up from 25 percent in past decades, he said.
The National Guard Youth Challenge Program targets young high school dropouts who are unemployed, drug-free and have no police records and aims to help them turn their lives around, according to the program's Web site.
The program blends military-based training and supervised work experience with core program components of citizenship, academic excellence, life-coping skills, community service, health and hygiene, job skills training, leadership and "followership," and physical training. The 18-month program includes a 22-week residential phase followed by a yearlong mentoring phase with a specially trained member from each youth's community.
Since Congress first authorized by Congress in 1993, more than 62,000 young people have graduated from 31 National Guard Challenge Programs in 25 states and Puerto Rico.
Of these, more than 70 percent have earned their general equivalency diploma or high school diploma while enrolled and 25 percent have gone on to college, Sharp said. And while the program is not designed as a recruiting initiative, 20 percent of National Guard Youth Challenge graduates have joined the military, he said.