Dade County Resident Leads Young Marines Unit: “Boy Scouts on Steroids”
By LYDIA BERGLAR
When Tony Baker’s son, Brett, first joined the Young Marines while looking for something similar to the Boy Scouts, the family didn’t know much about the youth program. Now, almost eight years later, Tony serves as the unit commander for the Southeast Tennessee Area Young Marines (which incorporates Dade County and other areas near Chattanooga, Tenn.), and he is proud of the leadership and character development that happens through the program.
Brett is the only current Dade County participant, but Baker notes that as many as four from Dade have been in the program at one time. The group includes boys and girls ages eight through high school graduation, and according to the program’s website, it is focused on leadership, citizenship, self-discipline, and living a drug-free lifestyle.
While originally started by the Marine Corps League, Young Marines is not a military organization or a recruiting agency. Baker explained, “We’re a civic unit. When the Marine Corps League started the program in the 1960s, the mission was to keep kids off drugs and living a healthy lifestyle. The league isn’t involved anymore, and while there is a small connection, we’re not like an ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) unit.”
Baker reported that while a small percentage of Young Marines graduates enter the military, a large percentage (he estimated 40%) enter first responder fields. Baker himself is not a veteran, but that isn’t a requirement to serve as a unit commander.
He explained, “When I took over, I knew I had shortcomings because I hadn’t been in the military, so I have a couple Marines who help as subject matter experts. The reserve center in Chattanooga also helps out, and the unit’s executive officer is an Army veteran.”
The local unit meets every other Saturday. The days begin with physical training, which incorporates classic calisthenic and cardio exercises. Participants then change into uniform, have chow (lunch), and begin classes.
Baker said, “We always have a Drug Demand Reduction (DDR) class which may be something on methamphetamines or marijuana. We’ll take real world instances that we see when we’re out and turn that into classes.”
After class, they complete close-order drills and learn to march. Lastly, they learn outdoor survival classes, such as shelter building and fire starting. Baker calls it Boy Scouts on steroids.
Community service is a key focus of the group. Baker was proud to report that Honoring the Sacrifice Foundation in Chattanooga recognized the unit’s service to the veteran community with the American Hero Patriot Award. He said, “We’ve done fundraising for Honoring the Sacrifice, helped with Wreaths Across America, and helped with Freedom Ranch, an therapy ranch that works with veterans and hosts equestrian special olympics.”
The unit has also helped clean up garbage, and individual Young Marines serve when they find an opportunity. “Individual Young Marines have done everything from building handicap ramps to helping older people cut grass and rake leaves. They take the initiative themselves,” said Baker.
Enjoying the outdoors while gaining survival skills is also part of the program. Baker said, “We try to spend a lot of time in the field, repelling, hiking, and camping. At least once a year, we’ll do a back country weekend trip.”
An educational focus on history and the military is something Baker appreciates about Young Marines. Part of this education comes through travel. Baker explained, “We went to Hawaii in December 2022 to participate in Pearl Harbor Remembrance Week. We were on the USS Arizona at 8:00 a.m. on Dec. 7. All of the kids knew about Pearl Harbor, but watching them more fully recognize the history and the sacrifices made for this country was a moving aspect, especially as the World War II generation dies.”
The unit is tentatively planning to attend the 80th anniversary of D-Day and 106th anniversary of Belleau Wood. “We’re planning a trip to Normandy, France, with a big tour of World War I and II sites in Europe,” said Baker.
The unit raises funds for trips like this and for the program overall. There are uniform costs, a small enrollment fee, and Baker reported that the Pearl Harbor trip cost $500 per Young Marine.
Because the Young Marines themselves fill key roles in leading the unit, the kids get hands-on leadership experience. In Baker’s words, “We let them make a lot of decisions. We give them that ownership. They plan our camping trips, and we’ll review their plans. If something doesn’t go as planned, we ask them, ‘What’d you learn from that?’”
Baker has witnessed the impact Young Marines has had on his own son, but he’s also seen other young people grow through the structure and discipline of the program. Of his son, Baker said, “It’s given him focus. He’s had a determined mindset for a long time, but it helped him grow. He wants to join the Marine Corps for a period of time, then move to federal law enforcement, and finally to local law enforcement.”
Other parents have commented to Baker about the confidence their children gain from the program. He explained, “It’s not a hard program, but it’s not an easy program. We try to find a happy medium that teaches valuable skills while also having fun.”
To learn more about the Southeast Tennessee Area Young Marines, call Tony Baker at 423-243-6147 or visit www.youngmarines.org/public/page.