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National Youth Leadership Forum Features DoD Role, Opportunities

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2005 – A group of high-achieving high school students interested in future careers in defense, intelligence or diplomacy got a peek behind the scenes at Pentagon operations here Oct. 12.

More than three dozen participants in the National Youth Leadership Forum on Defense, Intelligence and Diplomacy spent the day at the Defense Department headquarters here, where they sat through briefings about military operations, met with military members and even got to sample "meals, ready-to-eat," packaged military rations.

"I love it," 16-year-old Leanne Whitlow, of Roxboro, N.C., said of the week-long forum as she stood in line, waiting for Army Staff Sgt. Renee Mosely to hand her an MRE lunch. Whitlow noted she's likely to have many more MREs in her future, which she hopes to spend in the Marine Corps.

She praised the forum, a twice-a-year session that offers young people the opportunity to meet some of the country's top decision makers and exposes them to critical national issues. "It gives you an outlook of the world today and the issues going on," Whitlow said.

During the Pentagon visit, representatives of the different military services described day-to-day life in the armed forces, including candid views of the ups and downs.

One panel member described what he called a low point in his career: standing in the snow during a training exercise at Grafenwoehr, Germany, soaking wet and running on 36 hours of duty with no sleep. Others described the difficulties of leaving families behind during long deployments.

But they lit up when telling the students about the pluses of military service, including the opportunities to go to school and travel to what one called "the greatest privilege of all: to serve with other dedicated professionals in defense of the country."

Petty Officer 2nd Class Cleveland Hodges told the students he joined the Navy planning to stay just long enough to earn money for college. But, he said, he loves the sea service so much he's now planning to make it a career.

Seventeen-year-old Michael Barden, a Junior ROTC cadet from San Antonio, called the National Youth Leadership Forum for Defense, Intelligence and Diplomacy "a lot of fun and a good experience" that gave him valuable insights for his future. Barden plans to go to Notre Dame University, then join the Army or serve the country in another way.

Ron Filan, a 17-year-old from Toms River, N.J., called his Pentagon visit and participation in the forum "an excellent opportunity to meet people in the field." He said the experience reaffirmed his dream of going to the U.S. Military Academy, at West Point, N.Y.

Beth Schultz, director of the forum, said the program offers a unique opportunity for high-achieving students to prepare for their future professional careers.

"This is designed to expose them to some of the options out there for them and getting them excited about potentially doing something in this career field," she said.

Through classroom sessions, lectures, visits to defense, intelligence and diplomatic operations throughout Washington, D.C., and participation in a weeklong practical exercise, students get tremendous exposure to the process that ultimately leads to U.S. policies and decisions, she explained.

"Our goal is for them to come out (of this program) saying that this is the best thing they've ever done," she said. "And that's exactly what a lot of them are saying."

This forum wraps up Oct. 15 with a mock Cabinet meeting that addresses a national crisis scenario facing the United States, Schultz said.

Kevin Wesolowski, a Defense Department representative who accompanied the students throughout their Pentagon activities, said the program gave the students an opportunity to hear about the important roles both military and civilian personnel play within DoD.

"It's through programs like this that we are able to stimulate the minds of this great nation's youth and to spark their interest in a career with the Department of Defense, whether military or civilian," he said.

The National Youth Leadership Forum is a nonprofit educational organization established in 1992 to help top-notch young people prepare for their future professional careers.

The forum's mission is to bring various professions to life, empowering outstanding young people with the confidence they'll need to make well-informed career choices.

Participants are selected for the program based on academic abilities, leadership and an interest in the career field being studied.

In addition to the defense, intelligence and diplomacy field, other forums focus on law, medicine, nursing and technology.

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