By Doug Snover
When George Meegan steps up to address a group of camouflage-clad boys and girls, there is no doubt who is in charge here. Even without the uniform, Meegan carries himself like a United States Marine.
At 68 years old, Meegan shows a few more pounds these days than he did during 23 years in the corps. But he still wears his hair in a close-cropped military flat top, and he keeps his mustache trimmed almost to military perfection.
The recruits had best pay attention. The recruits had best pay attention. Discipline and responsibility are two of the Young Marines’ watchwords—Discipline with a capital D, Responsibility with a capital R.
There will be some drilling at this meeting of the Chandler Mustangs, a unit of the Young Marines that Meegan formed in 2001 to join existing units in Mesa and Phoenix. There will be calisthenics because physical fitness is a vital component of the Young Marines’ training. And there will be a history lesson, most likely from Meegan himself, to teach these boys and girls something about the value of citizenship.
On special occasions, there also will be a field trip to clean up a weed-choked lot or a summer camp for underprivileged youths.
These Young Marines, who range from eight to about 18 years old, brandish shovels and rakes, not weapons.
The Young Marines was created in 1958 as the Marine Corps’ official youth program. It promotes the mental, moral and physical development of young Americans with activities that emphasize the importance of honesty, courage, respect, loyalty, dependability and devotion to country, community and family.
Young Marine units are organized following military convention, with statewide divisions broken down into regiments, battalions and, ultimately, units. Each unit is an independent community-based program lead by volunteers who, like Meegan, often are retired, active duty or reserve Marines who believe passionately in the values they learned as Marines.
Boys and girls undergo a demanding 26-hour orientation program to become Young Marines.
Meegan says his goal for Young Marines is “to build better citizens who are drug free.”
The Young Marines is not a recruiting tool for the USMC or other branches of the military, he said.
“We’re not a boot camp program. Boot camp gives the wrong connotation. There is not somebody screaming in their faces.”
Nor is there any weapons training beyond teaching the children that if they find a gun to never point it at anyone.
In other words, responsibility.
“We teach prevention. We don’t want to be an accident waiting to happen,” Meegan said.
He points to the Winchester lever-action rifle on display on the wall of the den at his Kyrene Corridor home. The room has been converted into a sort of library and treasure trove of things from his 23-year military career. “I don’t have any ammunition for that (Winchester) in the house,” he said.
Meegan enlisted in the USMC as a private in 1955. He retired as a captain in 1978.
After a 22-year career in homeowners association management and security, Meegan discovered the Young Marines program. He attended a meeting and was hooked. When the local commander asked him to start his own group, Meegan quickly agreed. The Mustangs unit started with six recruits in 2001 and has grown to about 50 kids now--the largest Young Marine unit in the state.
The Mustangs meet in the National Guard Armory in Chandler. Meegan organizes 13-week training sessions starting in August and again in January.
In between studying military-style marching and physical fitness, the Young Marines perform community service, such as visiting the Veterans Administration hospital.
“I want these kids to appreciate what these veterans have done,” Meegan, himself a Vietnam veteran, said.
Meegan, who commands the Grand Canyon Regiment as well as leading the Chandler Mustangs unit, recently led some Young Marines from throughout Arizona through a special regimental school in at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma.
The weeklong program taught the Young Marines leadership, discipline and confidence to help them resist peer pressure and drugs, Meegan said.
The Young Marines’ workday began at 4:45 a.m. and lasted until 6 p.m., Meegan said. Yet everyone “made it through,” he said proudly.
Seven Marines led and mentored the young Marines throughout their stay on station.
Cpl. Joshua Estep, air control electronics operator, Marine Air Control Squadron-1, volunteered to help instruct the course, along with six other corporals.
“I wanted to volunteer for this program because many of these kids don’t have a positive mentor in their lives,” said Estep, a Coal Grove, Ohio, native. “It is important to have a person that they can really look up to.”
“This course gives the Young Marines an opportunity to work with each other and Marines in order to build a sense of pride,” Meegan added.
He said since he became the commanding officer four years ago, he has noticed a significant, positive change in many of the Young Marines.
“One of our Young Marines was a D-student when he joined the program; now he is an A-student and recently got a meritorious promotion,” Meegan said.
While on station, the 35 Young Marines learned close-order drill and how to rappel. They also participated in a four-squad competition and attended classes and lectures on drug prevention, customs and courtesies.
“These children continue to come each year because there is a great enthusiasm here,” said Retired Master Gunnery Sgt. John Urban, a Young Marine volunteer and resident of Gold Canyon.
“This is a great experience for them to come here and be around active duty Marines. There is no better role model than a hard-charging corporal,” said Urban, who retired after 23 years in the Marine Corps and decided to mentor Young Marines because he wanted younger children to get the discipline and decisiveness that he learned as a Marine.
Denette Reid, regimental adjutant and Mesa native, said she decided to volunteer with the Young Marines because she noticed the positive influence the program had on her two sons.
“When they joined the program, I think it saved the family,” said Reid. “I noticed they had more discipline and confidence. I wanted to volunteer to give something back.”
Reid said the annual trip is something the Young Marines look forward to each year, and she plans to come as many years as possible.
Back at his south Tempe home, Meegan described one of the more challenging parts of the recent Yuma training--public speaking. Young Marines were given a topic and required to give a five-minute talk to his or her peers.
The youthful speakers were given this advice, Meegan said: (1) Know your subject; (2) Inform the audience; and (3) Get off the stage.
“One kid in five minutes gave the virtual history of Poland,” he boasted.
Being a history buff, Meegan probably could lecture for hours on military history and the glories of patriotism. Instead, he has built models to teach his Young Marines.
“I want the kids to understand that people sacrificed so they could go to school, so they could read the books they want,” he said.
“The model is so the history means more than just words.”
More information about the Young Marines nationally is available at www.youngmarines.com. Meegan can be reached at email@example.com or by telephone at (480) 897-8835.
Information about the Chandler Mustangs units is available at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ChandlerMustangs - firstname.lastname@example.org
Cpl. Matthew Rainey and Cpl. Natasha S. Rawls of the Community Relations Office at Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma contributed to this article.