Devil Pups program offers leadership challenges

By Desiree Jones NAWCWD Public Affairs

Devil Pups program offers leadership challengesOld Smokey, a military mountain at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, stands nearly two hours high, its crooked spine worn smooth by the determined steps of Devil Dogs and the Pups named after them.

Andrew Godinez, 15, made his way to the top of Old Smokey on July 26. At one point he thought he might not make it, but his new friends from Fifth Platoon encouraged him to keep going. As he climbed higher, he found himself encouraging others.

When they reached the top, the boys could see most of Camp Pendleton, their temporary home.

Below them was the 25-foot tower they had climbed up and jumped down, splashing into the training tank. The barracks were there, with bed racks for sleeping until 4:30 a.m. There was the barber who buzzed their hair down to a shadow. And White Beach, where they took a five-mile run in the sand.

With this final challenge now under their green canvas belts, Godinez and his platoon headed down the mountain to take part in a sunset ceremony that would make them official Devil Pups.

Forty-eight boys wearing red hats, white T-shirts and blue jeans stood in formation as the national anthem played.

For many Pups, it’s an emotional moment when the same Marines who challenged them, yelled at them and pushed them further than they thought they could go, press that coveted coin into their palms and say, sincerely, “Good job.”

“I never did anything like this,” said Godinez. “I will never forget it.” He was one of nine local boys who qualified for slots in the 2013 Devil Pups program.

Each summer Ridgecrest sends up to a dozen boys and girls, ages 14-17, through the 10-day leadership program at Camp Pendleton that stresses physical conditioning, teambuilding and self-discipline. Since its start nearly 60 years ago, Devil Pups Inc., a nonprofit organization, has graduated more than 50,000 teenagers from its program at no charge to the kids.

Nearly 500 of those boys and girls have participated through the Ridgecrest unit, chartered 33 years ago by the late Burke West, a retired Marine Corps colonel and respected attorney.

Sean Callahan and Lori Casperson, both former Marines, serve as program liaison representatives for the Ridgecrest unit.

Casperson said the application process begins in mid-March and draws an annual average of 20 potential candidates from Bishop, Inyokern, Lake Isabella, Mam-moth, Ridgecrest, Tehachapi and Trona.

To qualify for the Camp Pendleton experience, candidates must be healthy, medication free and able to pass the program’s physical fitness test, which includes a timed mile run, pull-ups and sit-ups.

Although pre-training is not required, Callahan and Casperson offer, on their own time, six weeks of workouts designed to help boys and girls prepare for the test.

Marines from the Marine Aviation Detachment at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division also volunteer their time in this pre-training effort, adding what Casperson calls “presence.”

“The Marines here have been fantastic,” she said. “Their presence gives the kids a taste of what they’re going to have at the encampment. I mean, the Marines are the Marines. The attitude and dedication they have — the kids respond to that. So when a Marine says do something, you’ll hear them saying, ‘Yes, sir.’”

Marines helping out this year included CWO2 Dennis Caoile, Sgt. Kenyatta Cone, Staff Sgt. Brian Brown, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Daida, Staff Sgt. Margaret Gean, Staff Sgt. Larry Trampel and Cpl. Rodney Vance.

Cone said he was glad to assist and looks forward to helping in years to come. “I see the program as a brotherhood, to look out for and educate as best we can our future leaders,” he said.

After the six weeks of conditioning, only nine boys qualified as candidates for the Devil Pups program — seven from Ridgecrest and two from Mammoth.

Candidates for the 2013 second encampment included Godinez, Tyler Brown, Andrew Gawler, Jacob Mahler, Harrison Manzano, Caleb Roberts, Richard Tamez-Burke, Jacob Turner and Jakob White.

On July 17 these nine boys were on the running track at Murray Middle School for one final Devil Pups meeting and a sea bag check.

Parents stood nearby, watching the boys unpack and repack their gear. Jeff Turner said this would be the first time his 14-year-old son would be away from home this long. Since one of the rules is no phone calls or contact throughout the 10-day camp, Turner said he was a little nervous. “But it’s a good kind of nervousness. I think this will be an experience of a lifetime for him.”

On the day before the boys’ departure, becoming a Devil Pup was still an experience most of them could only guess at.

Tamez-Burke said becoming a Marine is something he’s wanted since he was 7 years old. He hoped the program would help him “listen to orders better.”

The only boy who knew exactly what to expect was Brown. Last year, on the eighth day of the camp, an accident caused him a dislocated kneecap. Still wanting to complete the program, Brown re-applied and qualified to attend the 2013 encampment.

On the drive down, Callahan overheard Brown giving the other boys the same advice all potential Devil Pups hear: “Keep your mouth shut, your ears open and when they do ask you to open your mouth, yell.”

The boys learn fast, said en-campment commander Trace Den-eke, a retired Marine Corps colonel.

“The training standard does not recognize or tolerate a ‘good enough’ type of attitude or effort,” said Deneke. “Devil Pups quickly assimilate to these standards and, in no time, an attitude of pursuing excellence becomes the new norm.”

Equally important. he said, is “to stamp the hearts of Devil Pups graduates with a clear understanding of the value of being an American citizen, respecting our country’s flag and proud traditions, gaining a sense of purpose and service to one’s own community, striving to be the best possible son or daughter, improving self-confidence and respecting others.”

And so begins a 10-day experience that starts with paperwork and ends with a formal graduation ceremony where, twice each summer, 300 new Devil Pups march in unison across the parade grounds to the cheers of their families.

Richard Linsday, president of Devil Pups Inc., told 2013 graduates, “You have an amazing foundation that many of your peers do not have. Share that with them.”

Then Linsday asked, “In life, are you going to succeed?” And six platoons of Devil Pups yelled with one voice, “Yes, sir!”

But can 10 days at this camp make a lasting difference?

It did for Shane Hunter, who went through the Devil Pups program in 2003.

Today, Hunter serves as a sergeant with the Marine Corps Reserves and works full-time as a China Lake police officer.

“I learned fast that it wasn’t all about me,” he said. “I also learned a lot about the American flag and our country.”

Casperson said the Devil Pups experience is so memorable because the teens accomplish things there they never thought they could.

“I tell the kids, ‘When you get done with Devil Pups, no one can take away that feeling. Every time you face something hard that you have to do, just remember how you ran those five miles on the beach and jumped off that 25-foot board. Don’t say you can’t.’”

Casperson and Callahan put on an awards ceremony Aug. 8 to honor each local Devil Pup graduate with a medallion and other keepsakes and to present sponsored scholarships to the highest achievers in the physical fitness competitions at Pendleton. They also recognize the local Marines who helped out.

Six of the graduates participated in the ceremony. Parents mingled around the refreshments, some sharing how this experience had affected their sons.

Matt Roberts said his son, Caleb, told him he had “learned more with the Devil Pups in 10 days than he had learned at home in 15 years.”

In her 13 years as a liaison representative, this year being her last, Casperson said she is convinced that every kid should try to become a Devil Pup. “Devil Pups is a good step, a tool, to help them realize that they can be so much more.”

Story First Published: 2013-08-28