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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.’ ”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”