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Character Development

For Sea Cadets, saltwater is not required.

Give these young people some expectations, structured learning and a sense of purpose and they'll thrive, whether in Modesto, Turlock or Wyoming.

A bunch of committed, respectful teens Saturday gave up part of their weekend, as they do once a month, for an exercise- and motivation-packed drill in Modesto. Some of the older cadets are headed to the military. Others see college in their futures.

All are building a trait that might not jump to mind when you think about teenagers:

Discipline.

"It's a challenge," said Josh Teixeira, 17, of Modesto. "We get kids who are undisciplined and we make something of them."

Cadets in divisions from Modesto, Turlock and Stockton smartly marched in columns Saturday, periodically shouting "Aye, aye, sir!" to commands barked by peer leaders. Activities throughout the year might include work as temporary deckhands on ships, two-week summer camps, participating in rifle salutes and real search-and-rescue missions.

"It's one of the best-kept secrets for youth," said David Autore, commanding officer of the Turlock-based Princeton Division. He previously flew Air Force bombers but was drawn as an adult to Sea Cadets, which accepts volunteers from any service branch as well as people with no military experience, as long as they're committed to young people.

U.S. Naval Sea Cadets are 13 to 17 years old, and Navy League Cadets start at 11. Nearly 10,000 kids belong to 371 units across the United States, including Montana and Wyoming.

The three divisions in this area have 75 members. All learn discipline from the word go.

"I used to be a bad kid, sir," said Christopher Bailey, a 16-year-old junior at Modesto High School. "I was just messing around, not caring about school, being a little jerk. Cadets stopped that. Now I'm polite."

Six years of training have landed him at the top of the Modesto Division as lead petty officer.

A notch below in the chain of command is Petty Officer Sterling Ingram, 16, a Downey High senior whose father learned about Sea Cadets four years ago and signed him up.

"I wasn't doing anything else, just playing games," Sterling said. Now he holds down a part-time job at Kentucky Fried Chicken and is counting down the days to his 17th birthday -- two weeks away -- when he intends to sign up with the Navy. His experience as a cadet will jump him one pay grade and two ranks above other recruits.

"Basically, the next 20 years of my life are planned out," he said. "This is a career for me. Only good can come of (cadets)."

Josh, also a senior at Downey High, has been a cadet less than two years but has even more concrete plans because he's 17, the minimum for enlisting with parental approval. In July, he reports to Navy boot camp in Illinois. He'll later study weapons as a gunner's mate.

His example influenced Monique Hernandez, 17, to check out Sea Cadets. She also joined the Navy with a July report date to become a "PR" -- parachute rigger. And she recruited her 14-year-old brother, Guillermo, to join the cadets.

What has Sea Cadets taught Monique?

"Discipline," she answered without hesitation. She recalled rising at 5:40 each morning and grueling physical training during a two-week boot camp for cadets near San Luis Obispo.

"It was hard, I'm not going to lie," she said. "You learn things. You won't take things for granted anymore."

Future cadet Stefanie Rock, 10, of Lathrop was conspicuous as the tiniest in Saturday's drill. She's following big sister Heidi Rock, a Sierra High senior with fighter pilot dreams and a goal to attend a military academy.

Shawn Steggink, a 16-year-old junior at Waterford High, has no family military history. But the cadets saw his leadership potential and turned him into commander of a rifle team, one of very few in the United States permitted to train with live fire. He also is certified to lead volunteers -- including adults -- in search-and-rescue missions.

Although Sea Cadets are immersed in military structure, they aren't required to sign up for the real thing when they come of age.

"Our goal is to produce competent adults," Autore said.

For more information on the Modesto Division, call Laneya Littrell at 648-5310 or go to modestoseacadets.com.

For more information on the Turlock-based Princeton Division, call David Autore at 485-4148 or go to dolphin.seacadets.org/US_units/ UnitDetails.asp?UnitID=124PRI.

For more information on the program, go to seacadets.org.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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