Full Mettle Junket

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

Golden was put in Durango for beating up his sister.
Taylor's been to three high schools in the past two years. He says he can't control his temper.

"Is there anyone you've wanted to hit since you've been here?" asks Hammonds.

"Sir, yes sir," says Taylor.
"Why didn't you?"
"Sir, because you would have hit me back, sir."
Everyone laughs, including Hammonds.

After the autobiography session, someone from another platoon almost tests Taylor's theory.

A short Latino kid went AWOL and was brought back by the cops. He's been dropped from the program twice before. He makes $400 a week selling drugs on the street.

Hammonds recognizes him and goes over to give him a hard time. The AWOL has had enough. He cocks his head to the side and looks like he might take a shot at Hammonds.

"Stupid, fat motherfucker," he says to Hammonds.
Hammonds drops his folder and gets in the kid's face.
"Go ahead and do something," Hammonds says evenly.

Nothing happens. Hammonds tells him that the next time he acts up, the whole platoon will be punished. It doesn't matter. The kid is one of the first to quit Pre-Challenge.

Project Challenge is a voluntary program. Going AWOL is not allowed, and a student can be picked up for trespassing. If someone wants to leave, he must have a counselor call his parents.

By the end of Pre-Challenge, 23 students will drop out.
"This place sucks," says one kid waiting for his parents to come get him. "If I wanted to get yelled at and march around, I would've joined the Army."

"I'm going back to high school," says another. "High school's a helluva lot easier than this."

If he does go back to high school, Hammonds will hold no grudge.
"If a kid thinks this is too hard and wants to go back to high school, then I count that as a success," says Hammonds. "The problem is, most of them won't."

At the end of the first day, Hammonds gathers blue platoon in the dorms. They sit on the floor while Hammonds tells them about the kid who wanted to take a swing at him.

"He called me a 'stupid, fat motherfucker,'" says Hammonds. "Now, how many of you have wanted to call me that since you've been here?"

A few reluctantly raise their hands.
"Thank you for your honesty," says Hammonds. "The rest of you are damn liars."

Hammonds continues the informal session and allows the platoon to air beefs.
Someone doesn't like marching everywhere.
"Marching teaches discipline and unity," says Hammonds.
Another doesn't like the yelling.
"Don't listen to the volume, listen to the words," says Hammonds.
Romero stands up. "I like the yelling," he says. "I need the discipline."

After only a day, there has been a change in the platoon's attitude. Even Martinez is smiling after the evening session.

"I like to put them at ease before they go to bed," says Hammonds. "If they go to sleep feeling good, they wake up feeling good."

I recognize that true success is a balance between personal success and success of the group.

--from the Code of Honor

The blue platoon marches in formation to a field for Silver Bullet exercises designed to build teamwork. Hammonds surrenders control of his platoon to Counselor Tom Schaeffer and Sergeant Morris Arvidson.

Blue starts out by joining hands. They form a circle and pass a Hula-Hoop around their linked arms. There is a task to complete, but the kids are looser and more natural in this environment.

Schaeffer and Arvidson rarely interfere. They never shout instructions. For the first time, the personalities of the platoon begin to show.

The slack atmosphere is planned. The CIs want the individuals in the platoon to reveal their true identities. Schaeffer and Arvidson observe specific traits that develop during the exercise. They make note of leaders, followers and who performs well under pressure.

In the Human Ladder, the platoon faces each other in two rows holding broomsticks between them. One of the smaller members of the group walks across the ladder. It extends when the keepers of the last rung race up to the front.

"Go faster, dog," Acosta tells the ladder walker. "It's all about trust."
Acosta shows leadership skills in all of the exercises. When the platoon struggles to figure out a way to complete a task, it's Acosta they turn to for answers. Other guys like Whipps and Taylor show equal determination, but don't get the respect that Acosta does.

With Silver Bullet over, Hammonds orders the platoon to line up in formation. The group is slow to react. They have tasted personal liberation during their time away from the CI. As soon as Hammonds starts counting to 10, they line up.

Hammonds asks the platoon if they heard him when he told them to get into formation.

"Sir, yes sir," is the answer. Not everyone responded, and the reply is weak.

Yturralde overhears the exchange. She's above the CIs in the chain of command and reprimands Hammonds in front of his platoon.

"CI Hammonds, I guess you haven't taught your platoon how to sound off," says Yturralde. "See that you do."

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