Photographs by Sarah Blesener

Young Marines recite the Pledge of Allegiance during the opening of their annual ball at their local VFW, 21 Oct 2017, Hanover, PA. Students attend with their families and close friends to celebrate the accomplishments of their fellow cadets. The Young Marines are a non-profit organization with around 10,000 students enrolled nationwide. The program runs year-long, with meetings once a week.

In rural central Florida, a group of children sit on a jetty, their reflections dappled in water the color of iced tea. It is quiet. Stifling, peaceful. The children pray over the breakfast they’re about to eat and ask for blessings for those whose hands prepared it. And they ask for safety during their upcoming weapons training, during which they will learn how to disarm a knife-wielding attacker, load a rifle and properly handle a handgun.

Jasmine Burke, 17, and Joseph Chubb, 17, spend an evening around a campfire in northern Florida in July 2017. The high school sweethearts are students of the North Florida Survival School, where young people are trained in firearm and knife safety and learn basic survival skills in the woods. Credit: Sarah Blesener for Reveal

In Harlingen, Texas, young boys loll on the grass in the sunshine, swapping their families’ war stories.

“My uncle killed Taliban in Afghanistan,” one boy says nonchalantly.

Another shares a tale about a relative who tried to sneak an AK-47 back to the U.S. The boys will spend a few more weeks at this private quasi-military camp, where they will engage in physical, mental and weapons training. Some of them dream of a career in the armed forces.

Young Marines sing karaoke together to “Yellow Submarine” at a ball with their families and fellow students at their local VFW, 21 Oct 2017, Hanover, PA. The Young Marines are a non-profit organization with around 10,000 students enrolled nationwide. Enrollment begins at the age of eight.

In the small town of Herriman, Utah, children as young as 6 learn the Declaration of Independence by putting it to song. Over a few hot summer days, they will learn about “Americanism,” a blend of patriotism and history that casually mixes in some of the basic tenets of radical libertarianism. During one lesson, they’ll pretend to overturn a boat full of tea into Boston Harbor. In another class, these elementary school children will be taught that it is wrong for the government to force them to pay for social programs in the form of taxes.

Elizabeth Nelson, 17, waits in the parking lot of Home Depot waiting for her friends after watching their team their first football game of the season, 25 August 2017, Omaha, Nebraska. Nelson enlisted to the army the summer before her senior year of high school, and will ship out to boot camp three days after she graduates. “I feel like Omaha is not really the place for me. So, I definitely want to move out West if anything. I do kind of want to get the hell out of here.”
Elizabeth Nelson, 17, challenges a love interest of her best friend to a push up contest in the parking lot of Home Depot, 25 August 2017, Omaha, Nebraska. The senior friends are spending the evening at their local Sonic hang out after the game. Nelson enlisted to the army the summer before her senior year of high school, and will ship out to boot camp three days after she graduates.

About this project

  • Visit: An exhibition of this work in New York City, through April 1, 2018 or in San Francisco, May 3-30 with other Catchlight fellows at SF Camerawork.
  • Read: What Sarah Blesener learned during her fellowship year.
  • Learn: More about Blesener and the funding behind this project.

New York-based photographer Sarah Blesener spent the past year traveling the United States visiting youth summer camps and events. She has photographed and interviewed dozens of children, from 8-year-old Utahns to teenagers in the Bronx borough of New York. She has camped in sweltering, bug-infested central Florida with religious survivalists and hiked the dusty frontier of the U.S.-Mexico border with 12-year-olds – most of them Latino – who want to “take down illegals.” Along the way, Blesener gained insight into not only how America’s youth think, but also the ways adults guide these children onto philosophical, religious and political paths.

The camps Blesener visited – a slice of hundreds, if not thousands, of similar camps – fall into three general categories: patriotic camps, which aim to instill a love for America and a deep knowledge of the religious roots of the country’s founding; military camps, where children undergo rigorous physical training and are taught the discipline and skills crucial to a career in the armed forces; and survivalist camps, where kids learn skills such as building shelters and identifying edible plants in preparation for an apocalypse, natural disaster or the Second Coming.

Young Marines attend a meeting focusing on drug awareness, 11 Feb 2017, Hanover, PA. Hanover and the surrounding districts combine for Young Marines meetings, with a total of around 40 students. Nationwide, the youth group has around 300 clubs. The ages range from 8-18. The Young Marines is a not-for-profit organization focusing on youth development in categories such as citizenship, patriotism, and drug-free lifestyles.

It would be tempting to assume that interest in the camps is directly related to recent shifts in U.S. society, the 2016 presidential election and a renewed spirit of American nationalism and patriotism.

But there are myriad reasons why these children attend camps. Some are keen to get a taste of military life, eager to see whether they can survive “boot camp light.” At the Utah patriot camps, most kids have been brought by parents who want them to experience unfiltered American pride they are unlikely to find anywhere else. And then there are the reluctant campers: the teenagers who lament losing half of their summers to patriotism, pushups and prayer, but attend because their parents make them and they don’t really have a say.

Many of these camps, especially the military ones, enforce strict dress codes. Taking care of your uniform is one of the primary rules at several camps Blesener visited. Even the patriot camps have their own uniform – bright red T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I Love America.”

The less formal camps are run and staffed primarily by volunteers, with paid professionals sometimes brought in to lead firearms safety or self-defense training. But the organized military camps, most of which form part of sprawling national organizations, have legions of paid staff, many of them veterans. Increasingly, these bigger camps look more like offshoots of the military than private enterprises, with their uniforms, ex-military staff and weapons – much of which are paid for indirectly by U.S. taxpayers.

“Overall, I wanted to look at how, as a culture, we pass down patriotic and military traditions to children,” said Blesener, who spent the year as a fellow at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting with support from CatchLight and the Alexia Foundation. “And I think this is an extraordinarily interesting time to do this. America is so divided, and I wanted to speak to youth and see if they are as divided and what their worldview is and how they are being shaped as young adults.”

Young Marines attend a ball with their families and fellow students at their local VFW, 21 Oct 2017, Hanover, PA.

Forging a new ‘Americanism’

President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “make America great again” is a message Julie Knudsen has been propagating for years: Not only should America reclaim a proud past, but it also desperately needs to regain pride in the greatness of the American experiment itself.

Back in 2011, Knudsen co-founded the Utah Patriot Camp. Aimed at children ages 5 to 12, the camp was a reaction to Obama-era American apologizing, she said. It was designed to be a safe place where children could learn the glories of the American republic – the beatific nature of this country’s birth.

“We teach the miracle that happened during the Revolution, that God’s hand was involved in the creation of America,” Knudsen said. “A lot of people come for that sort of stuff.”

JROTC students from Fern Creek High School practice for a national drill competition happening in Daytona over the weekend, 3 May 2017, Louisville, KY. Their school holds the record, and the pressure is high for the students to keep their reputation. JROTC is one of the largest youth organizations in the world, with over 300,000 youth enrolled.

Without knowing it, Knudsen had tapped into a sentiment that would, five years later, help propel Trump to the presidency. The ethos of the Utah Patriot Camps (she said there are now 15 across three states catering to more than 850 children) represents a new era of patriotism that closely aligns with messages and policies being crafted in Washington, D.C.

The messages of “America first” and “Americanism” can be found at the forefront of far-right political movements such as the one driven by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, as well as in the pages of literature handed out at camps such as Knudsen’s.

“After the war, everybody wanted George Washington to be the king, because he was such a great leader,” a teacher told the class at the Utah camp Blesener attended in June. “And Satan tried to tempt him. Did you know that?”

A small boy interrupted: “What does ‘tempt’ mean?”

“ ‘Tempt’ means a kind of trick,” the teacher said. “Do you think he could have done a lot of good? He could have. But that’s not what God wanted, was it? He wanted this country to be free, right?”

The class took place in the shade of trees in a public park in Herriman. The park had been adorned with dozens of American flags, and they fluttered in the light morning breeze as the children moved from session to session.

The aftermath of a day of drills in 105 degree Texas heat at the Marine Military Academy, an all-boys institution. The academy hosts a summer camp on their academic campus in Harlingen, Texas, 17 July 2017. The camp hosts boys from around the world, ages 12-18, with around 300 cadets in attendance.

Knudsen’s camp is inspired by the 9/12 Project, a now largely defunct organization launched in 2009 by conservative radio host Glenn Beck. Its motto was “Restoring America.”

Everything Knudsen heard and read about the project appealed to her. So she sent away for a copy of a Patriot Camp Handbook, written in 2010 by a group of Pennsylvania moms as “our attempt to generate enthusiasm in our communities about teaching children what makes America unlike any other nation.”

The manual became Knudsen’s blueprint for her camp. She expected a few applicants. She got more than 100.

“I think it filled a void,” she said.

Cadets participate in a Leadership Reaction Course at West Camp Rapid, Rapid City, SD, 14 July 2017. Students from five states around the Midwest spend a week at the Civil Air Patrol Joint Dakota Encampment. The age range is 12-18, with around 60 students in attendance.
Students participate in drill, Rapid City, South Dakoa, 13 July 2017. Students from five states around the Midwest spend a week at the Civil Air Patrol Joint Dakota Encampment. The age range is 12-18, with around 60 students in attendance.

The camps feature sessions during which kids sing the Declaration of Independence and include visits from actors dressed as the Founding Fathers. But there are also sessions such as a “redistribution of wealth” activity, during which half of the children do jumping jacks to earn Tootsie Rolls. The candy is then distributed evenly among all the kids – including those who did no “work.”

The manual gives guidance on what should happen next: “Emphasize that it is our own individual responsibility to be charitable,” it reads, “not the government’s job to redistribute our wealth, or take our money to give to others.”

While there are hints like this of right-wing politics in the manual and the lessons, Blesener was most struck by the camp’s overall ethos of unabashed American glorification and a focus on the U.S. as being founded directly by a higher power.

Ryan Dunlavy (L), Nerisa Garcia (C), and Jeremy Cabral (R), students from the Border Patrol Explorer Program, practice a room clearing drill at the United States Border Patrol Station in Kingsville Texas Station, 19 July 2017. The Explorer program is sponsored by Boy Scouts and Homeland Security, and nearly 700 students, ages 14-20, participate at their local Border Patrol post. Credit: Sarah Blesener

A group of small children Blesener interviewed told her proudly that they were being taught how to become “modern patriots.” The children said they were learning “how God protected the soldiers against the Indians” and how “George Washington was protected by God to not be killed in battle.”

Students pray in June 2017 at the Utah Patriot Camp, a weeklong day camp, in Herriman, Utah. The camp for elementary school-aged children teaches lessons on the Constitution, American values, military history, the Bible and more. Camp co-founder Julie Knudsen says the camp was launched in 2011 as a reaction to Obama-era American apologizing.

“There was a lot of fun educational stuff – making popsicles, that kind of thing – but there was also this really kind of intense theory they were teaching,” Blesener said. “At one point, they were talking about the Declaration of Independence, and they said it was the first time in history that anybody had ever stood up to their king or queen, which obviously is just not true.”

High school seniors Joseph Chubb (left) and Jasmine Burke search the woods for kindling while taking part in the North Florida Survival School in July 2017. The school holds a weekend training event in Keysville, Fla., in partnership with 10 CAN, a nonprofit organization for families of those in the U.S. military.

Public money for private boot camps

At a South Dakota camp run by the Civil Air Patrol – a quasi-military organization primarily funded by Congress – students discussed how best to display their American pride with a teacher brought in to instruct them on flag etiquette.

“In our generation, we obviously see that people don’t treat the flag with the respect it deserves,” one student said. “What should we do when we see a group of people disrespecting that?”

The instructor responded, Blesener recalled, by saying the children should intervene and share their knowledge of how to properly handle and respect the flag with their peers.

Students rest and wait for a critical thinking and self-management class taught by cadet and senior staff to begin, South Dakota, 13 July 2017. Students from five states around the Midwest spend a week at the Civil Air Patrol Joint Dakota Encampment. The age range is 12-18, with around 60 students in attendance.
Garett, a senior member of the Young Marines, dances with his girlfriend at a Young Marines attend a ball at the local VFW, 21 Oct 2017, Hanover, PA. The ball is celebrated once a year, with family and friends celebrating the students success in the program.

At a camp run by another quasi-military organization, the Young Marines, Blesener watched children as young as 8 go through an initiation ritual that included dressing and undressing as quickly as possible. Most of the kids broke down in tears, Blesener said, only to be built back up again by their instructors.

As the drills ended, the children were comforted and told that they had succeeded where others had failed. They were now part of a family, an elite unit.

“Afterward, I was talking to the camp leaders and they were saying, ‘Nowadays, everyone is so politically correct. … Not everyone can take this kind of initiation, everyone is apologizing for their behavior,’ ” Blesener said. “We just want to be one of those groups that is proud of who we are and won’t apologize for it.”

Many of the quasi-military youth camps are privately run and funded, with some camps costing thousands of dollars to attend. Other camps are staffed by volunteers and are free to all. Young Marines camps lie somewhere in the middle, with some charging a nominal registration fee while the bulk of the costs are borne by the organization.

ROTC students from Fern Creek High School practice for a national drill competition happening in Daytona over the weekend, 3 May 2017, Louisville, KY. Their school holds the record, and the pressure is high for the students to keep their reputation. Fern Creek has a history of ranking highly in the national championship, in particular with their women’s team, placing first for 15 consecutive years.

According to Young Marines’ tax filings, the nonprofit received more than $4 million of its about $7 million in funding from “government grants” in 2014. The tax records offer no additional detail about which grants the organization received. Bill Davis, Young Marines’ executive director, wrote in an email that the funds are from a federal grant in part for drug demand reduction efforts, administered by the Department of Defense.

The Warrenton Rifles team competes, 23 Apr 2017, Warrenton, VA. Students from the Warrenton Rifles Junior Shooting sports team meet for practice twice a week in Warrenton, Virginia. Warrenton is a town in Fauquier County, with a population of around 9,600. While Virginia’s population voted for Clinton in the 2016 election, in Fauquier County the majority voted for Trump. The Rifles are starting their eighth year as a program, with 16 students currently on the roster. The Rifles team members have been invited to the United States Olympic Committee’s Junior National Championship, the American Legion Junior Shooting Sports National Championships. NRA grants have been providing the team with state of the art range equipment and rifles. Nationwide, around 15,000 students participate in the program.
Young Marines prepare for an airsoft competition in Hanover, PA, 30 Sep 2017. The weekend encampement is solely for games: the Young Marines do not teach tactical skills, and are not a paramilitary group. The Young Marines are a nonprofit that focus on patriotic and military education for youth in the United States.

“It’s a quasi-military recruitment program,” said Rick Jahnkow, an anti-militarist activist who founded two organizations aimed at preventing children from becoming “militarized” in schools. “It’s intended to plant seeds in kids as young as elementary school, so that eventually they either become recruitable or, at a minimum, their minds have been recruited.”

Jahnkow and other activists keep a close eye on the military’s attempts to recruit in schools. Traditionally, their campaigns have focused on programs such as the junior ROTC and military-funded shooting ranges in schools, with some success. They’re extremely concerned about programs – some funded by the National Rifle Association – that bring guns into schools.

These programs made national news recently after it was revealed that Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old charged with killing 17 people in a mass shooting at a Florida high school, had participated on a JROTC air rifle team supported by the NRA. Cruz was wearing a T-shirt with the shooting program’s logo when he was arrested.

But the uptick in recent years of private military youth camps funded with public money has opened a new front in the activists’ work, and it has them concerned.

Young Marines undergo a physical fitness drill in Hanover, PA, 8 Sep 2017. The group meets once weekly throughout the year, as well as weekend boot camps throughout the year. The Young Marines are a nonprofit that focus on patriotic and military education for youth in the United States.
Students from the Border Patrol Explorer Program at the United States Border Patrol Station in Kingsville Texas Station, 20 July 2017.

“It’s a creeping plague,” said Libby Frank, a member of the steering committee for the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth. “It’s all geared toward getting people used to the idea that the military is a major part of their life.”

Blesener, too, said she was concerned by how these camps exploit children’s vulnerabilities by instilling them with notions of America’s military might and moral exceptionalism.

“There is absolutely zero criticism of what the American military does overseas at these camps,” Blesener said. “Every single leader you talk to will deny that these are recruitment camps, but of course, they are. Introducing a child to an activity or a worldview at such a young age is clearly a way to steer them in that direction.”

One of the children Blesener met over the summer, 17-year-old Elizabeth Nelson, went on to enlist in the Army. Nelson said she learned at the camp that, on enlistment, she would get credit for her time spent there if she reached a certain rank at camp.

“I was like, ‘Wowzer!’ ” Nelson said. “I had always wanted to enlist, but when I heard about Civil Air Patrol, I was like, ‘This could really help me in my career.’ ”

Thomas Dillon (L), Kayla Wayman (M), and Julia Lair (R) spend the evening at Mt. Rushmore for a ceremony promoting two cadets in their unit, as well as to watch a patriotic film and lighting ceremony, Keystone, South Dakota, 13 July 2017. Students from five states around the Midwest spend a week at the Civil Air Patrol Joint Dakota Encampment. The age range is 12-18, with around 60 students in attendance.
Civil Air Patrol students prepare for a bed and room inspection during an encampment week, 14 July 2017, Rapid City, South Dakota. Students from five states around the Midwest spend a week at the Civil Air Patrol Joint Dakota Encampment. The age range is 12-18, with around 60 students in attendance.

Prepping for the ‘zombie apocalypse’

Children attending the North Florida Survival School talked a lot about the zombie apocalypse. They were joking, but for the older kids, the term was a sort of code – an analogy for a coming catastrophe that could be around the next corner.

“The zombie apocalypse is just the fun, easy way to look at it, but the reality is that at any point, an apocalypse could start, whether it is the economy or a nuclear attack,” said 17-year-old Jasmine Burke.

Javier Velasquez, 18, a student from the Border Patrol Explorer program, participates in a firearm training class at the local Border Patrol Post 125, Nogales, AZ, 1 June 2017. The “Explorer” program offers 14-20 year olds the opportunity to work with law enforcement and experience what it is like to work as a border patrol agent.
Students from the Border Patrol Explorer Program at the United States Border Patrol Station in Kingsville Texas Station, 20 July 2017.

Many street-smart teenagers in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago probably would sneer at their devout, well-behaved counterparts in rural Florida, who spend their weekends learning how to build shelters, start fires and find edible plants, as well as holding prayer sessions and singing hymns by the lake.

Kids such as 17-year-old Joseph Chubb acknowledge this. He is well aware that city kids find it odd that teenagers might want to learn how to collect clean water or hygienically dig a latrine. But to teenagers attending the North Florida Survival School in late August, the ones who should be mocked are the teens sitting in their apartments in the big cities, assuming that their lights will always turn on, the Wi-Fi will never go out and the pizza guy will always deliver.

A student at Marine Military Academy, an all-boys institution, waits for a game of paintball to begin during a summer camp on the academic campus of MMA in Harlingen, Texas, 17 July 2017. The camp hosts boys from around the world, ages 12-18, with around 300 cadets in attendance.

“Most people in America don’t even know how to light a fire,” Chubb said. “The shelter of the indoors, the increase in modern technology – it’s obvious we’ve become more dependent on that. When you don’t need to go outside and make a fire, you forget how to do it.”

The three-day midsummer camp outside Ocala culminated in an afternoon session firing rifles at a target by the lake. One by one, the kids donned ear protection and shooting goggles and learned how to properly load, aim and fire two different rifles.

Students from Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus dance to celebrate the grand finale of its 7th annual JROTC Military Ball at the Villa Baron Mansion, 17 May 2017, Bronx, NYC.

For several of the children, who had been shooting for years, the training session was merely a refresher of the rules they had long committed to memory. But for 9-year-old Austin Gerthe, the afternoon offered some valuable lessons.

“One time, I shot my dad’s shotgun secretly,” Austin confided before the session. By the end of the training, however, the skinny, freckled boy had yet to master the rules of handling weapons. The instructors decided he was better off just watching.

Young Marines pray together during the opening of their annual ball at their local VFW, 21 Oct 2017, Hanover, PA. Students attend with their families and close friends to celebrate the accomplishments of their fellow cadets. The Young Marines are a non-profit organization with around 10,000 students enrolled nationwide. The program runs year-long, with meetings once a week.

There are no reliable statistics showing whether demand for survivalist training camps is growing or waning. Steven Claytor, owner of the North Florida Survival School, said he has seen demand increase over the last few years, but suggested it had more to do with a flood of survival-themed TV shows than with Trump’s election or increased global geopolitical tension.

Other survivalist camps reported a more recent boost directly related to the 2016 presidential election.

Civil Air Patrol students visit the South Dakota Air and Space Museum near Ellsworth Air Force Base in July 2017. Among its exhibits, the museum features vintage military aircraft, a modern B-1 bomber and a Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile.

“The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since Dumpy Trumpy took office,” said Shane Hobel, owner of the Mountain Scout Survival School in New York’s Hudson Valley. He said potential customers are “freaking out” about the possibility of Trump pulling the U.S. into a nuclear war. And they’re worried his leadership could cause the economy to collapse.

But Eric Giles, who owns the Texas Survival School in North Texas, had a different experience.

“It’s kinda slowed down,” he said. “It slowed down after the election. A certain group of people were worried about (Hillary) Clinton getting in, but they’re not worried anymore.”

Sarah Blesener was a 2017-18 Catchlight fellow embedded at Reveal.

Will Carless was a correspondent for Reveal covering extremism. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia and South America. Prior to joining Reveal, he was a senior correspondent for Public Radio International’s Global Post team based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Before that, Will spent eight years at the Voice of San Diego, where he worked as an investigative reporter and head of investigations. During his tenure in San Diego, Will was awarded several prizes, including a national award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has been a finalist for the Livingston Awards for young journalists twice in the last five years. He surfs, spends time with his family, travels to silly places and pretends he’s writing a novel.