By Howard Wilkinson
Enquirer staff writer
WALNUT HILLS - Wednesday evening, at the Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Gilbert Avenue, the weekly ritual began.
Antonio Blair, 9, of Westwood, participates in Young Marines drills with a jungle-camouflage uniform and forage hat.
Photos by MICHAEL E. KEATING/The Enquirer
Emily Ballinger, 12, laughs as she talks with her father Ken Ballinger, a Young Marine staffer.
The Young Marines, with several regional chapters, held their weekly gathering at the Naval and Marin Reserve Center in Walnut Hills.
A stream of cars, vans, and pickups passed through the gates, letting out boys and girls ages 8 to 18. They were dressed in jungle camouflage uniforms, forage caps on their heads, high-topped and shod with spit-shined boots.
One by one, they marched up to their commanding officer, John Rose of Oakley, a 63-year-old retired Marine with the bright eyes and white beard of a department-store Santa, standing ramrod straight to greet them.
"Sir, reporting for duty, sir!'' they barked to Rose, staring straight ahead, right arms raised at a 45-degree angle, fingers touching the bills of their caps in salute.
They are the few, the proud, and, in some cases, the very small.
They are the Young Marines.
The 20 who showed up Wednesday are part of the Cincinnati chapter of the Young Marines, a 46-year-old organization with more than 10,000 members nationwide.
The Cincinnati chapter has 44 active members, said Joseph Prell, the group's volunteer adjutant whose 10-year-old son Andrew is a Young Marine.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Young Marines have been more visible than ever, showing up at support-the-troop rallies, holiday parades and troop deployment ceremonies across the area.
In June, a contingent of Young Marines showed up at the same Reserve center where they hold their weekly meetings to see off a company of real Marines - Communications Co., Headquarters Battalion, 4th Marine Division - as they headed for a tour of duty in Iraq.
Earlier this month, they were scattered among the crowd in front of the Clermont County Courthouse in Batavia at the memorial service for Sgt. Chuck Kiser, the Army Reservist and Amelia native who was killed in action in Iraq.
The organization, Rose says emphatically, "is not a recruiting tool for the Marine Corps.''
"It is about teaching kids respect, discipline, physical fitness and a love of country,'' said Rose. "If they go on and join the military somewhere down the line, that is up to them. But they learn lessons here they can carry with them no matter where they go or what they do.''
There are two chapters in Greater Cincinnati - Rose's Young Marines of Cincinnati and the Little Miami chapter, based in Maineville. Children who join go through a 26-hour "boot camp," an orientation program actually spread out over several weekly meetings.
There, they learn military history, Marine customs, close-order drills and military rank structure.
What they do not learn is military tactics - how to fight an enemy in the field.
"That can come later,'' Rose said, "if they go on into the military.''
Once they have graduated, they can wear the Young Marine uniform and earn ribbon awards - the Young Marine equivalent of the Boy Scout merit badge - in such areas as community service, first aid, drug resistance education and academic excellence.
Like their real-life Marine counterparts, they work their way up the ranks - from private first class to master gunnery sergeant, the highest non-commissioned officer rank.
Locally, there are two chapters of the Young Marines:
Commanding officer John Rose, Oakley
Commanding Officer Peggy Allen, Maineville.
For information on the Young Marines, visit www.youngmarines.com
YOUNG MARINE CREED
The Young Marine Creed is recited every time the unit is in formation:
I pledge to:
Obey my parents and all others in charge of me, whether young or old.
Keep myself neat at all times without other people telling me to.
Keep myself clean in mind by attending the church of my faith.
Keep my mind alert to learn in school, at home or at play.
Remember having self-discipline will enable me to control my body and mind in case of emergency.
Eighteen-year-old Eric Gipson is master gunnery sergeant of the Young Marines of Cincinnati. The top-dog enlisted man has been with the organization since he was 13 and commands the immediate attention and respect of the Young Marines half his age.
"I came from a military family - my dad, my mom and my uncles were all in the military,'' Gipson said. "I wasn't some kind of problem kid who needed straightening out. It looked like fun to me.''
What Young Marines taught him, Gipson said, "was an immense amount of self-discipline and the courage to try new things. I found out I could do a lot more than I thought. I have come a long way.''
He has come far enough that Rose and the other staff volunteers - mostly retired Marines - have turned over much of the responsibility for holding formations and training to him.
The youngest of the Young Marines, in particular, look up to Gipson.
Antonio Blair, 9, of Westwood, stood at attention Wednesday, his head barely poking above Gipson's belt buckle, as the master gunnery sergeant showed him how to shoulder and order arms, using a fake ceremonial rifle.
"Don't move your head,'' Gipson barked. "Swing that rifle around your head and keep still. You got that, Blair?''
"Sir, yes sir!'' Blair replied, straining to look forward and not glance up toward his mentor.
Standing off to the side, watching the drill in wide-eyed wonder, was 8-year-old Tyler Day of Taylor Mill. His mother, Dixie, brought him to the session in hopes of enrolling her son in the unit.
"He's a good kid, always respectful to people and he has a lot of energy,'' Dixie Day said. "He knows by the tone of my voice whether or not to call me 'mom' or 'ma'am.' I think getting him in Young Marines is just going to reinforce everything I've tried to teach him.''
As Day went inside the Reserve center to fill out paperwork, Tyler asked Rose in a tiny 8-year-old mutter if he could stay outside and watch the drill.
"You have to speak up, son,'' Rose said, leaning down to the boy. "We speak out strong here.''
Another boy, a corporal, came up to speak to the commander, forgetting to salute.
"What's the problem?'' Rose asked. "Your arm won't bend at the elbow?''
Slowly, with a hint of a smile, the boy lifted his right arm in salute.
Some of the parents stayed to watch their kids during the 21/2-hour sessions.
Others, like Ken Ballinger of Cheviot, who retired from the Marine Corps 10 years ago, were in uniform as official staff volunteers. Ballinger worked for a while Wednesday night with his 12-year-old daughter, Emily.
"I didn't push Emily into this; it was her decision,'' Ballinger said. "And when we are here, I'm not Dad. I'm an instructor. I'm 'Sir.' "
Diane Feeley of Clifton volunteers, too. Her son Antonio Hinkler, 15, is, at about 6-foot-5, the biggest of the Young Marines.
Antonio talked about how the Young Marines had changed his life, as his mother stood beside him, nodding in agreement.
"Pardon my French, sir, but I used to be a little badass,'' Antonio said. "I got here and had to drop that fast.''
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