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A Vietnam veteran saved me from a life of delinquency.

As a 13-year old boy heading off the rails, I met a Vietnam veteran and serving solder who turned my life around.

Twenty-five years later, I have teamed up with one of these guys to put together Veterans4Youth, which offers a two-week military-style camp to help get at-risk teenagers back on track.

As a teenager myself I was off the rails – I skipped school, challenged teachers and started to get into heavier things like vandalism, stealing and breaking and entering into properties. I was never caught, but found myself mixing with the wrong crowds and was quickly sliding down the juvenile delinquency slippery slope.

I was the youngest of four kids to a single mother growing up in the low-socio economic suburbs of Western Sydney. Mum had to work a full-time job to support us kids and couldn’t keep me nailed down.

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We had to get ourselves to and from school without supervision, and quite frankly, if I didn't want to go to school, I just wouldn't go. I did what I wanted and there wasn't much anyone could do about it. This caused a lot of friction at home and my mum had no one to help her, nor did she know what to do with me.

She ended up sending me on a youth development program every Friday night and the odd weekend – it was there that I met those two men who got me on the straight and narrow.

I remember very clearly the day they pulled me aside and told me what my problem was. They told me I was a smart kid with heaps of potential, but that I was wasting it on working the system and trying to get away with mischief.

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If I continued like this, they said I was going to end up going nowhere and with no friends.

I remember the words very clearly: “All that stops now. It stops here. It stops at home and it stops at school. You're going to do exactly what I say, and I'm going to teach you everything you need to learn to be successful in life. If you put one foot out of line, I will be all over you so hard you won’t know what hit you!”

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Now some would think that a teenager would run from someone like that, but actually it was quite the opposite. It was just what I was desperate for – a male role model who would mentor and guide me.

Many teenagers are looking for mentors to teach them. If we don't put the right people in front of them, they will end up with the wrong people leading them.

My life story shows how intervention in the teenage years, and a strong role model, can make a very significant difference for a child.

Under the support of these military mentors I thrived, and to cut a long story short, I went from being a 13 year old pain in the neck, to being accepted into the Royal Military College Duntroon five years later as an 18 year old.

I served 14 years in the army as an officer, including tours in East Timor and Iraq, and achieved many great things in my life.

Aside from my successful military career, I created an investment firm with a multi-million dollar turnover, wrote three books and founded a military cadets program, which has 350 kids and more than 60 adult volunteers.

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But it all started with that one critical intervention at age 13.

Now I often wonder just how many kids are losing that same opportunity?

With 50 per cent of marriages failing and school teachers being forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs when it comes to discipline, who is teaching these kids the essential skills they need to be successful in life and make a contribution to our society, rather than be a burden?

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Our program takes the best bits about what the military does in basic training to develop kids quickly into effective members of a team. This is based on the core values of integrity, loyalty, commitment, duty, courage, initiative, leadership, positivity, self-discipline, pride in one’s hygiene and presentation, respect for others and for self and an attitude where there are no problems, only challenges.

The two-week school holiday LIFE AMMO program is a life changing shot in the arm for any teenager who maybe is in the early stages of going off track.

These early signs might be disrespect for parents and teachers, disobedience, rudeness, falling grades, truancy, initial drug use as well as lack of hygiene and personal grooming.

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These issues can start in children as young as 11 and it’s not just limited to boys – we’ve got girls coming along to the camp too.

Essentially though, it’s really important to get to these kids early, before they enter the juvenile justice system and damage everyone, and everything, around them.

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Early intervention is the answer. Often the kids who need this the most, come from the families with the least money.

These children need structure and discipline, they need self-discipline and self-respect, and they need to know that it’s not all about them.

An Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth study into the success of one of Australia’s most well known youth mentoring programs, Big Brother Big Sister, shows how beneficial mentoring can be for at-risk teens.

By involving a mentor in that child’s life, the study showed there was a reduction in drug and alcohol use and physical violence; improvements in academic behavior and performance and in parent and peer relationships.

Military training regimes also have a lot to offer these kids. It helps them value the team over self and to make them more motivated to perform, in order to not let the team down.

We also teach them to make their decisions based on what is the right thing to do, not the thing that will bring the most personal gain.

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The success of the LIFE AMMO camp is based around six core team-building activities, which I developed over four years running youth military cadet camps. They are:

• Physical training: Every morning, straight out of bed, an ex-military personal trainer, who was also a juvenile delinquent before joining the army, gets the teens active. This training includes things like physical team challenges, running, bushwalking and circuits – all set to challenge the children within their limits.
• Room and dress inspection: Beds are made with hospital corners, clothes cleaned, boots polished and then there’s inspection. The kids’ reaction is actually quite surprising to this – often they don’t want to let their peers down, nor their instructors, and I find them rising to the challenge.
• Drills: Marching in a group develops teamwork, self-discipline, attentiveness and an instinctive response to commands.
• Field training: Teens are taken into the bush, and out of their comfort zones, to face military challenges, which test them both mentally and physically. Split into teams, practical problem solving includes things like working out how to move a trailer with only one wheel.
• Confidence building: Teens are taught to conquer mental and physical fears and activities include everything from public speaking and job interviews, to abseiling, a bridge climb and even a tandem parachute jump.
• Values training: Cove values like honesty and integrity are focused on daily.

In my experience with teens, I found when practiced daily, these activities are the most effective way of building teams and developing personal qualities in the shortest space of time.

For more information on Veterans4Youth, please click here. 

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