15 April 2013

Mich. sea cadets send SOS in wake of federal budget cuts

Story originally appeared on the Detroit News.

Harrison Township — As a member of the Great Lakes Division of the Navy Sea Cadets, Jon Allen spent thousands of hours during his childhood working aboard the group's training vessel Pride of Michigan. With the cadets, he had the chance to experience things most youngsters never will.

"I learned to drive the 80 foot long Navy ship at age 13, a year before I learned how to drive a car," said Allen, 20, who rose through the ranks and became the ship's Chief Petty Officer. "That's not something that you normally get to do."

Allen is now in his third year at the Milwaukee School of Engineering working toward a career in civil engineering, a subject that he first became interested in because of his time on the ship.

"Just being on board and getting that hands-on experience, that made a difference," said Allen. "The ship is definitely the biggest asset the program has."

But as a result of federal budget cutbacks, the program that has helped hundreds of youngsters find career paths could be left without the funds to stay afloat.

It's part of the trickle-down effect of the $1.2 trillion sequestration. The Great Lakes cadet program currently relies on $40,000 to $50,000 in annual funding from the U.S. Navy, which provides money to sea cadet divisions throughout the country.But this year, says Lt. Commander Luke Clyburn, the money never came.

"We put in a request like we do every year," said Clyburn, who has led the cadets for 40 years. "They said they wouldn't be giving out the money this year."

Although the program receives donations from various organizations, the immediate absence of the majority of funds has left these cadets in the lurch. Representatives from both the Naval Sea Cadet Corps and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations did not return requests for comment.

Parents are concerned

More than 30 youths between ages 11 and 17 work on the ship, used in the 1970s by the Navy for training midshipmen, throughout the year. It's one of three Navy vessels being used by such cadet groups.

The cadets use Pride of Michigan for everything from practicing ceremonies and repairing engines to diving shipwrecks and conducting research in the Great Lakes, said Clyburn. The goal is to prepare the young men and women for roles in the Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Merchant Marines and for professions in engineering and marine biology. There is no military commitment for cadets in the program.

Because the program is funded by other sources, parents pay only $350for their child to join the cadets, which in many cases wouldn't even cover the cost of scuba diving certification.

Currently, the cadets are preparing the ship for dry dock repairs and inspections. But once they get it back in the water, the group's organizers and parents are concerned they may not have the money to keep up the programs and maintain the ship.

"I don't even want to think about it. It would be devastating," said Amie MacDonaldof Madison Heights, whose son Billy, 14, is in his second year with the cadets. "Their future would look a lot different. I would hope that it would be all positive, but you don't know."

Funding for the program has come from many sources throughout the years, but over the past decade, it's been primarily federal funds distributed to the Navy for recruiting and research, said Clyburn. He says being forced to find funding closer to home could actually strengthen the program in the long run. But he's concerned about maintaining it for the short term.

"It's going to be tough to keep up with everything we've been able to provide these years," said Clyburn.

Fundraisers, lobbying planned

Having the practical experience on a ship helped Commerce Township resident Dennis Moore's son Kyle earn a spot in the U.S. Naval Academy Summer Seminar, a prestigious program for high school students interested in attending the academy in Annapolis, Md.

Attending the academy has been a lifelong dream for the 17-year-old junior at Lakeland High School in White Lake Township, and the camp could help make that possible.

"When you submit the application for the summer seminar, they look for what they call demonstrating interest," said the Dennis Moore. "Being in the sea cadets program was a way of demonstrating that interest."

Another cadet, Nicholas Ratinau, 17, of West Bloomfield, is preparing to begin school at the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture in New York in the fall to study engineering.

"The more I got involved with the cadets and the more I learned about it, the more I got to like it," said Ratinau, who has been a cadet for five years and is the lead petty officer on the ship. "I wouldn't have taken this path if the cadet program wasn't available."

To make sure the program will be around for years to come, parents and volunteers are working to put together fundraisers, lobby businesses and organizations for donations and gather items for an auction.

On Saturday, they found out the cadets would be taking part in the Celebrate the Lake" festival on June 8.

"We're going to do anything we can do to make this program continue. I promised my son," said MacDonald.

One of the newest cadet recruits, 13-year-old Gage Dyer, hopes the program can continue because he feels it will help him accomplish his career goal of becoming a marine biologist.

"To learn scuba diving at 13, that on a resume alone would show them this is what I want to do," said the Milford teen who says he already knows he wants to attend Texas A&M for college. "I'm hoping I can continue in the program until I graduate. This is what I want to do and there's a great opportunity here."

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