Full Mettle Junket

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Out in the dusty boondocks of east Mesa, a blue sign is posted next to Power Road. It tells motorists that the highway has been adopted by Project Challenge. There is no litter in sight.

"Don't Waste Our Space," insists the sign.
The same slogan should be tattooed on the 141 kids who arrive at Williams Gateway Airport/ASU East Campus this week in June. They'll go through a physically and emotionally taxing week of Pre-Challenge.

Anyone who makes it through the week and impresses the staff will be invited back for the full, five-month Project Challenge experience.

There's a reason these kids are at a boot camp instead of summer camp. They've either dropped out or been drop-kicked out of school. Some are full-time gangbangers. Parents can't reach them and teachers couldn't teach them.

Up to this point in their lives, society would say they've done little more than waste space.

If anyone of you doesn't mean business let him say so now. . . . Once in, you've got to see it through.

--Theodore Roosevelt,
Remarks to Recruits 1898.
From the Project Challenge student manual.

Mike Graser sits at a desk in the main office of Project Challenge. He's decked out in the gear that all Project Challenge staff wears--camouflage pants, a black tee shirt and black Army boots. An autographed picture of George Bush is framed near his desk, congratulating Graser on his retirement from the Army as an aviation first sergeant.

Since 1993, Project Challenge has been reclaiming high school dropouts with punk attitudes. The program breaks these kids down using strict military discipline and rebuilds them into someone who can live and contribute in a free society.

Charged with this mission are the Challenge Instructors (CIs). Respected and feared by the students, the CIs are mainly active National Guard personnel who hack off the rough edges of the goons brought to them. They've all been through the rigors of basic training. This is their job and their revenge.

"Somewhere along the line, the parents dropped the ball," says CI Dave Owens. "We're here to pick it up and run with it."

Graser has reason to boast about the accomplishments of Project Challenge. Arizona was one of 15 states chosen by the National Guard Bureau to start the program in '93. In that time, 1,349 students have entered the boot camps, and 72 percent have graduated.

Graduates are required to do more than get their GED--general equivalency diploma. Some will leave with up to 11 college credits and scholarship money. Each student must complete 100 hours of community service.

Most important, graduates will obtain some tools to help them deal with the demons that brought them to Project Challenge.

This is difficult for gang members. Their crew will see involvement in the program as a betrayal. Most of the bangers at Project Challenge view the program as their only avenue of escape.

Dan Zorich, the case manager for the Mesa Gang Intervention Project, provides tattoo removal for students who want to clean up their skin along with their lives. Many will enter a branch of the armed forces after graduation. Zorich says the military won't take anyone with visible tattoos anymore. Hidden or visible, gang tats aren't allowed.

Zorich is a big fan of Project Challenge. He believes the boot-camp structure is an effective way to reform a knucklehead.

"It's a way for them to break from their street ties, from the guys that they're hanging with," says Zorich. "It shows them a new peer group and some new things. One thing it does is it takes them off the street for a while. It gives them an opportunity to be away from those other influences, and they start to think on their own."

After the student completes the five-month residential phase, Project Challenge keeps watch over them. Graduates are teamed with a mentor from their area for another 12 months of guidance. Mentors help grads find jobs or get into the military or college.

Chief Challenge Instructor Kathy Yturralde walks into Graser's office. Trailing her is a skinny kid with a buzz cut. He's in the uniform that all the students wear, blue jeans and a white tee shirt. The CCI tells Graser the boy has a tongue stud that he can't take out.

"Get it out or you have to go home," Graser tells the pierced offender. "You've been here before. You know we don't allow any jewelry."

The kid sticks out his tongue and starts yanking at the silver stud. He finally gets it out. The stud pings in the metal trash can.

Graser asks Yturralde if anybody has been kicked out of the program. One guy showed up stinking of booze, she reports. He was sent home before getting the chance to check in.

"I know I'd be a millionaire when I find out a way to stop a teenager from doing something stupid," says Graser.

On the first morning of the Pre-Challenge week, a line of parents and kids snakes out the auditorium door. They are white, black, Latino, and Native American.

One look at the faces tells why these students have come to Pre-Challenge. A few appear eager to get started. This could be their last hope of getting a high school diploma. They're determined to prove their future isn't in front of a welfare counter or behind bars.

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.

Pre-Challenge is only a condensed version of the program. Phase movement is less of an issue.

"You have five days to prove that you want to be here," Pisano says. "You have to have an open mind, a willing attitude and a commitment to change. If you come to my program, I guarantee you success."

When his speech is over, Pisano booms: "On your feet." Everyone rises and sounds off with, "One, two, Challenge." They stand at attention.

A CI comes to the front to address the students. All CIs are intense and come packing a military background. Volume is how they get their point across. The CIs line up at the front of the room to be introduced, glaring at the kids.

"This is a hand-selected cadre staff, the best of the best," says the CI. "You will follow what they say, not question, not whine. Keep your eyes off the cadre until you earn the privilege of looking at them."

The CIs are turned loose, and it's organized bedlam. They mob the audience like squawking vultures and drop vocal bombs. They yell at these kids as though they'd burned their house down.


It'll be a long week for anyone who doesn't like to be hollered at. A short one for those who can't deal with it. Some will soon ask to go home.

Even a student who abides by the rules will get dressed down by a CI. The staff knows that if a kid can't handle a week of this, he'll never last five months. Space at Project Challenge is precious. Not everyone who wants to stay will be invited back.

Many don't respond well to this first wave of verbal abuse. Those who fail to show respect are put into the Iron Chair--backs flat against the wall, the punished squat in an imaginary seat. In a matter of seconds, there are five victims sweating and straining against the wall.

The Iron Chair is only one tool the CIs use to enforce the rules. The Ranger Thinking Position puts a student on his stomach with his elbows on the floor. The back is arched so the unfortunate Ranger can rest his chin on his upturned palms. They're supposed to be thinking about what they did wrong. Pained expressions suggest otherwise.

Though the CIs have an arsenal of muscle-crippling weapons, pushups are the currency of the camp.

CI Marty Hammonds says enforcing the rules is key in earning respect from the students. Most of them were able to trample over their parents' attempts.

"Mom and Dad see the tears, and they want to make it better," says Hammonds. "That doesn't work here. We're immune to the tears."

Lunch period is usually the best hour of a high schooler's day. You get to hang with your friends. Lunch time is chill time.

Not at Project Challenge. The meals are as regimented as the rest of the day.

The four platoons line up outside the dining hall. If a CI comes through the door, the first person to see him must sound off, "Make way." All students put their backs against the wall and allow the CI to pass.

Inside, each person goes through the salad bar and then the hot-food line. Students must side-step, eyes forward and absolutely no talking. Those who disobey are dropped for pushups.

Trays are taken into the adjacent dining room. Long rows of tables are surrounded by chairs on either side. Plastic salt and pepper shakers are the only table decorations.

A student comes to the table, places his tray down and stands at attention behind his chair. He must wait for the person across from him to arrive and do the same.

The second person sounds off, "Take a seat."
Then both yell out, "CHALLENGE."
If the routine is not loud, enthusiastic and in unison, a CI will make them do it again. Some pairs take almost 10 tries before they can eat.

Taylor from blue platoon stands up in the middle of his meal. He stands at attention and addresses one of his CIs in the appropriate manner.

"Sir, CI Dowler, sir," says Taylor. "Mr. Taylor requests permission to speak, sir."

"Speak," says CI Jeff Dowler, a graduate of the program. His joy at being on the other end of this routine is apparent.

"Sir, may I get a glass of juice, sir?" says Taylor.
"JUICE? YOU WANT SOME JUICE?" interjects CI Chris Cusick.

Taylor cracks a smile and sits down. The CIs will yell at any opportunity. Most of the kids learn when the CIs are doing it to get a laugh.

There are plenty of humorous moments dished out in the dining hall. It's the CIs, though, who are allowed to be the comedians, usually at the expense of the student.

"Murphy, get up here," Hammonds tells a member of his platoon during lunch. Murphy, 16, became a father at 15. Hammonds wants to know if Murphy knows the Barney song so he will be able to sing it to his kid. Murphy says he doesn't.

"Acosta, get up here," says Hammonds. Acosta's relentless work ethic has made him the unofficial leader of the platoon.

"Acosta, do you know the Barney song?" says Hammonds.
"Sir, yes sir," says Acosta.
"Stand on this chair and sing it to everyone," says Hammonds. "Murphy needs to learn it."

Acosta blushes, but gets on the chair in front of the whole dining room. When he begins the song, the rest of the blue platoon chimes in. Acosta finishes and sits down.

Hammonds berates his platoon for singing along. Only Acosta was supposed to sing. He's secretly pleased by the show of unity.

"I've never seen a platoon bond together like this," Hammonds says. "That never happens in Pre-Challenge. It usually takes a few weeks for that to happen."

Unless the CI asks for it, there is no conversation allowed. Forks scraping plates is the only noise coming from the students. The CIs will occasionally break the silence.


As soon as a student is through, he stands behind his chair and reads the Code of Honor. The code is 10 rules that must be memorized by the end of the week.

When the CI is finished eating, the platoon is through eating.

I will not lie to myself or others.
--from the Code of Honor

Members of blue platoon hustle to a classroom for their autobiography session. Three do not have chairs. Acosta is one of them, and he stands at the front of the class in the position of attention. The other two hang in the back.

"Sir, I don't have a chair, sir," Acosta tells Hammonds. Acosta is dismissed to get a chair.

Hammonds begins to speak, and then notices the two others without chairs. One is Martinez. He's been the target of Hammonds' wrath many times on the first day.

"WHY DIDN'T YOU TWO SAY ANYTHING? YOU HAVE TO LEARN TO SPEAK UP," says Hammonds. He makes them remain standing.

Hammonds sets the tone of the autobiography session by opening up about his past.

"I used to live out on the streets," he tells them. "I used to steal to survive. But I don't live there anymore."

Hammonds explains that they will write a topical autobiography. It will include their best and worst day, the most influential person in their life and the reason they've come to Project Challenge.

During the lecture, Navarro puts his head down and falls asleep. Hammonds sneaks up and pounds his fist on the table.

"NEXT PERSON WHO FALLS ASLEEP, AND EVERYONE LOSES THEIR CHAIRS," he says. Martinez and the other person standing are told to go get chairs.

When the pair return, Hammonds pats his desk. "Mr. Martinez, you sit next to me."

The students have 40 minutes to finish. Hammonds doesn't let on that they will be required to read their work to the class.

Time expires. Hammonds tells Martinez to read his autobiography out loud. He refuses.

"I'm not gonna read it," says Martinez, dropping the required "sir" that should begin and end everything he says. His eyes hold a death wish for Hammonds.

The class groans, but obeys and hits the floor. Hammonds keeps them there for a moment to give Martinez a chance to rethink his decision. Either he reads his paper, or the platoon will want to kick his ass.

"Fine, I'll read it," says Martinez. His disgust for Hammonds is all over his face.

Martinez begins his piece. It's typical biographical information--where he's from, the last high school he attended. There's no mention of why he came to Project Challenge. He finishes reading.

"You're not done," says Hammonds. "Read the rest of it."
"I don't want to," says Martinez. "The rest is just about how much I hate this place."

Martinez rolls his eyes and continues. The rest is well-written, full of detail and humor. He says he thought the program would be good. But as soon as he showed up, there was a woman in Army pants screaming in his face. Then a kid next to him began coughing up pink, chunky liquid all over him. Martinez wishes he had escaped when he had the chance.

The platoon applauds wildly when Martinez is through. Hammonds praises him for his honesty.

You don't get to Project Challenge without taking the wrong path at some point. The program keeps them from getting even more lost.

Part of that is admitting you've screwed up.
Greyeyes has a pregnant girlfriend and was dealing and robbing on the streets.

Romero is a banger from Nogales who's been kicked out of every school in town.

Murphy was kicked out of school for drinking. His best day was when he became a 15-year-old father.

Crosby got drunk and stole a car. He woke up the next day in juvenile hall and couldn't remember what happened.

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."


Hammonds and Yturralde have worked out this charade in advance. Shift leaders will pretend to be angry with a CI so the platoon is held accountable for their mistakes.

"Sir, sorry sir," a few members of the platoon say.
"There are no sorry individuals at Project Challenge," says Hammonds. "Say, 'I apologize.'"

The whole platoon loudly belts out an apology.
On another day, blue platoon is broken into four groups of seven for Lifeboat Exercises. It's a role-playing game in which the group is forced to leave a dying Earth in a spaceship for another planet they'll colonize. There is only room for four on the spaceship.

Each person is given a card telling them what they are. The group must decide who goes to space and who dies. A counselor sits in on each group. They make similar notes as in the Silver Bullet.

Acosta, whose card identifies him as an intelligent, female movie star, is chosen as the leader of his group.

The rest of the potential crew of the spaceship: Martinez is an armed law enforcement officer. Cole is a professional basketball player. Linton is pregnant. Greyeyes is a biochemist. Sainz is an accountant. The counselor is a liberal arts major.

Martinez is the first to be left out. With only four survivors, they agree there will be no need for law enforcement. There's also the worry that he'll go crazy and start shooting.

In real life, these kids have records. They have no love for the police. Even as a pretend cop, Martinez refuses to argue for his life.

"I shouldn't go," says Martinez. "I'd just use my gun to make you take the spaceship where I wanted to go."

Basketball player Cole is the next to be left for dead. He makes a weak attempt to argue his worth by shopping his entertainment value. Cole almost wins a spot by suggesting they drop the pregnant mother instead. A baby will be too much trouble.

"How would you guys feel leaving a pregnant woman to die?" says Acosta. That was all the group needed. There will be no hoops in space.

Last to be left behind was the counselor. The survivors figured they could teach what they knew. Acosta argued in favor of the liberal arts major. He offered to give up his own seat.

"Yeah, but [the counselor] is not a girl," says Cole.
In every group, all the females were brought to the space colony. The best part of abandoning Earth would be repopulation. Teenage astronauts have their priorities straight.

Don't allow what you've learned here to go unpracticed. . . . Being stupid is easy. It doesn't take any effort at all. The hard thing to do is do the right thing.

--Lieutenant Colonel Pisano at the final assembly

After Pisano congratulates the 118 graduates of Pre-Challenge, a video from the last class is shown. It's a larger episode of the week just completed. There are scenes of hard work under an oppressive sun--morning physical training, pushups and screaming CIs.

But there are times that look more like summer camp. There's a prom at the end of Project Challenge. There's a barbecue every week. When Hammonds appears on screen wearing a pink tutu, blue platoon sounds off.

Students must fill out a survey after the video. They list the best and worst parts of Pre-Challenge. The key question is if they want to return for the five-month program.

Parents have gathered outside to take their rebellious offspring home. An army of denim and white marches outside. They showcase five days of strict drill and ceremony training. Punks who came with slouched shoulders and pissy attitudes show the discipline of military vets.

The marchers are a proud crew. Handing over your freedom for five days is hard to accept for teenagers. Especially for the gang members.

"These are the guys who come in here with the 'I'm tougher than you' type attitude," says Graser. "But they're the first ones who break down. They realize they've goofed in life and let everyone they've loved down. It hits them worse than anybody else when they realize they're not productive members of society."

Platoon colors have replaced gang colors. Gang signs and lingo have made way for cadence. The graduates have an identity now that will impress beyond the street corner.

Some of the parents wear the stunned expression their kids had the first time a CI screamed in their face. Others want to yank their son out of formation and get home in time for the soaps. Not everyone is returning to the healthiest lifestyle.

"I don't want to go," says Romero. He looks like he might cry. "I want to hang here."

Names are called. As the person leaves formation to go home, the CIs show off their vocal cords for the parents.

The parents don't know what to make of all the yelling. Their kids do pushups with a smile.

With the students someone else's problem, the CIs meet to decide who will come back. Hammonds, Dowler, Donald Adams and Janelle Koch argue the fate of blue platoon. They read over the surveys and automatically nix anyone who didn't want to come back.

Martinez had no desire to return. He looked like he'd go AWOL on the first day, but managed to adjust his attitude and gut it out. Martinez wanted Hammonds dead when he made him read the autobiography. He matured a bit during the week.

For his survey on what he liked, Martinez wrote, "CI Hammonds was cool."
The CIs are overworked and underpaid. They've been well-trained in the military and could get better-paying jobs doing something else. Despite its success, the program lives under a shadow of budget cuts and the threat of being shut down.

But this is the kind of job where results look better in the flesh than on paper.

"One guy in my platoon hugged his mom and then he came back over and hugged me," says CI Justin Whitehead. "I told him he better get out of my face. But I got all misty eyed."

Nickolas Acosta relaxes in a booth at Denny's in Mesa. It's around the block from his grandparents' house where he's been living. He says he rarely visits 27th Avenue and Glendale, his old 'hood. He'd rather hang with his grandparents, his fiancee and his son.

There are no CIs at Denny's. Acosta was able to sit down without sounding off. He has a choice of menu items. And freedom tastes minty fresh between drags off a Marlboro Menthol 100.

The grueling week of Pre-Challenge is behind him. Acosta has been selected to come back for Project Challenge.

"That program is damn good," he says. "I just wish I had finished it the first time. It's a program that proves that no matter where you've been or what you've done, you can always improve yourself."

Acosta's been in Durango four times. He says it "sucks" compared to the program he's about to reenter.

"The counselors at Durango don't give a shit about you," he says. "At Project Challenge, they won't hire CIs that don't care about the kids. And after you graduate, they still keep in touch with you. My brother still talks to his CI."

Acosta also likes the opportunity to meet different people. Students at Project Challenge don't bring the rules of the streets into the program.

At night, he'd meet up with Sainz and Romero in the bathroom. Both are Bloods. Acosta's a Crip. That's usually reason to brawl.

"We didn't care, we were cool," says Acosta. "We talked about where we're from, our families, stuff like that. The more mature ones won't let where you're from get involved."

He wasn't always so forgiving. Acosta admits that he used to be prejudiced against blacks.

"I finally got smart one day and decided to find out what the word 'nigger' really means," he says. "Shiftless, lazy and ignorant. That applies to every color of person. What are you going to do, hold a grudge against someone just for the color of their skin? If you do, then that's ignorant."

In his Project Challenge autobiography, Acosta wrote that he wanted a better life for his family. That wasn't going to happen if he kept up what he's been doing.

His first drink went down when he was 9. At 14, Acosta snorted coke. Crystal meth, weed and ecstacy followed.

"I'd do anything but crack and heroin," he says. "Nothing involving needles."

Besides getting high, Acosta was banging. West Side City Boot Hill 10th Ave Crips. He and his boys would look for rival gangs to fight. They'd drive through neighborhoods and shoot guns in the air, just for the hell of it.

Acosta can't remember the last book he read, but he could write one on stealing cars. He says he wasn't afraid to die or go to prison.

For Acosta, being a Crip meant more than roaming the 'hood.
"All that shit you hear about dealing drugs, all that bad shit is true to a point," says Acosta. "But you always have someone to watch your back. Somebody's always there to watch out for you."

Project Challenge has Acosta's back now. When he graduates, it will be the Navy.

The gang will always be a part of Acosta, and he knows it. He keeps his distance because it's easy to fall back into old habits. He says that part of his life is over.

"I couldn't handle people getting killed in front of me anymore," he says. "That shit gets old."

Contact Matthew Doig at his online address: mdoig@newtimes.com

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