Full Mettle Junket

For gangbangers and delinquents, Project Challenge boot camp is a last chance to avoid prison

The rest look pissed. If they don't do the week of boot camp, they know their parents might boot them from the house. Some were given the choice by a judge--either go to Project Challenge or spend the time locked up at Durango, the correctional facility for juveniles.

All face a week without cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and freedom. Some are already plotting a way to get the hell out.

The queue begins at an administration table where the kids are assigned a platoon color--red, blue, green or gold. They're told that everyone will be addressed as "sir, yes sir" or "ma'am, yes ma'am."

Other lines have formed behind tables where an instructor tells them to dump out their bag. Every item is given a careful search.

Mouthwashes and aftershave containing alcohol are not allowed. Desperate drunks will down it. Aerosol products aren't allowed. Idiots will inhale it.

"Look at that," says Graser. "The CI will even check inside the Chapstick. Sometimes a kid will try and sneak a cigarette in there."

Except for the body cavity, the students themselves are thoroughly searched. If someone was foolish enough to smuggle in contraband that way, it'll turn up in a room search.

Graser sneaks off for a cigarette, out of sight from the students who've been denied their nicotine fix. Though CIs are permitted to smoke, they hide for the same reason you don't tease a starving pit bull with a pork chop.

Graser snuffs the butt against a wall and then squeezes out the remaining bits of tobacco. He uses his foot to mash the small slivers of tobacco into the ground and flicks the empty butt away. In military terms, this is "field stripping." The CIs do this with every cigarette they smoke.

"Otherwise, the kids will collect the butts and make their own," says Graser.

Blue platoon's Nickolas Acosta is always in the lead position for marching and formation drills. He's vocal when he gets the opportunity and leads by example when he must keep quiet.

He knows the drill. He's been here before. Acosta, 18, almost made it through Project Challenge the first time. Two years ago, he volunteered for the program instead of being forced into Durango.

"The court said I had to complete two months," says Acosta. "At first, I was going to do my two months and quit. But then I started liking it. It makes you think about your life and your future."

His older brother entered the program at the same time. Acosta was expelled for going AWOL three times in one day and for fighting. He was a month away from finishing.

His brother graduated from the program and was angry with Acosta for failing. He's now in the Navy.

"I just wasn't mature enough then," says Acosta. "I made a lot of stupid decisions back then."

A requirement of Pre-Challenge is the writing of a brief autobiography. When it's Acosta's turn to read his to the platoon, he loses his gung-ho bravado. He speaks softly and keeps his eyes on his paper.

He used to be a Crip from Glendale and 27th Avenue in Phoenix. He has a five-month-old son and a fiancee who is pregnant again. His goal is to complete Project Challenge this time and, like his brother, join the Navy.

"My mom told me when I was 12 that she never loved me," says Acosta. "So when I was 13, I started rebelling, not going to school. I left home at 14 and my brother introduced me to people in the gang."

Being part of a gang gave Acosta the family that he didn't have at home. He's met his father only one time. The Crips he rolled with gave him an identity. Acosta ignored the baggage that came along with it.

"It's funny because, no matter how much in the past you've proved that you're down, they'll always say, 'If you're down you'll do this, if you're down you'll do that,'" says Acosta. "Then it gets all of us hyped up and we'll do something stupid. Like get into fights or steal a car."

We believe that to be effective the education process must be reinforced by order, structure and discipline.

--from the Project Challenge Mission Statement

The 141 students are seated for a greeting from Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Napolean Pisano, the soft-spoken director of Project Challenge. Sixteen CIs prowl the room. They yell at anyone who dares to look around or scratch themselves.

Pisano breaks down the requirements of the program to the captive audience. All students must be residents of Arizona and at least 16 years old by the end of July. They must be high school dropouts.

Last week's Pre-Challenge class was co-ed. This one is all male. From both classes, 150 will be asked back for Class 13 of Project Challenge, which will run from July 5 until the day before Thanksgiving.

The rules of survival are simple. Students can do nothing without permission from their CI. They have been issued water bottles, but aren't allowed to hydrate until the CI commands them to.

Everyone begins the program in Phase One, which offers the fewest privileges. As time goes on, they will rise to higher levels as they earn the trust of the staff. Each phase allows more freedom.

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