Outside the Betances Community Center on St. Ann’s Avenue and East 146th Street, 20 or so young men and women wearing Army fatigues scrambled to form straight lines, then raised their chins and clasped their hands behind their backs.
Eric Rodrieguez stood at the front of one of the lines. He is only 12 years old, but with his crisp khaki uniform, olive-green hat and proud stance, he looked more like a handsome WWII veteran.
“This is about learning what I have to do to get into the Army,” Rodrieguez said. “If not the Army, I’m going straight to the Air Force.”
Rodrieguez is a member of the Betances Cadet Corps, a free program run by active duty and retired military men. Three days a week he and his fellow troops participate in military drills, in order, the corps’ leaders say, to learn discipline and self-respect.
“We’re like a mini boot camp,” said three-star Army General James Aponte, who volunteers as supervisor of the program. As the young squad leaders ushered their troops into the community center, Aponte explained, “It’s a mentoring program. By the time they leave, they’re well disciplined.”
There are 160 cadets, most of them from Mott Haven. Some of them came to the program because they did poorly in school or had behavioral problems. A few are from foster homes.
But whatever their individual problems or where they come from, all of them, Aponte said, benefit.
“These kids around here, they got nothing to do,” said Aponte. “The parents here feel better knowing their kids are safe.”
Keeping the kids safe and engaged in positive activities is one of the biggest benefits of the Betances Cadets, agreed Carlos Quintana, a 53 year-old Air Force general and director of the program.
“We take them off the streets,” he said as he watched a group of teenagers practice drills from his wheelchair.
Each cadet is required to submit test scores and report cards to their supervisors in order to stay in the program. They get help with homework after school, learn physical fitness and healthy eating habits and often are treated to camping trips and movies.
The cadet program has been serving the Mott Haven community for decades. Quintana, who grew up on 145th Street, was 8 years old when his father enrolled him.
“I was what you call a bad kid,” he said.
In some cases the cadet program prepares its troops for a military career. The youngsters learn military skills that usually give them a head start if they enlist.
Piero Izquierdo, 17, a junior at Bronx Aerospace High School, has almost finished applying to the Air Force Academy. He wants to be a fighter pilot. His two years as a cadet, he said, helped him prepare for his college entrance exams and gave him confidence.
“I was a very shy person,” he said. “It makes you very proud of yourself to be doing something like this at this age.”
The cadets are split into Marines, Army and Air Force. Each member has a rank. Those who have proven themselves by making progress, behaving well and getting good grades are promoted to squad or platoon leaders.
Eleven-year-old Yairy Gines was recently promoted to Sergeant and now leads a platoon of girls. “You get to show them you should be taken seriously,” she said after leading her platoon through a series of jumping jacks and sprints. The girls in the program, she said, are “treated equal.”
At the community center, parents relaxed at tables and socialized together as the troops practiced drills in preparation for their May 15 graduation ceremony. After graduation, a few troops will be leaving for real boot camp.
Carlos Marquez, 19, is one of them. He entered the program two years ago after walking by the community center and seeing men in military uniforms. In July, he starts basic training.
“Since I was a little boy I wanted to be a soldier,” Marquez said as he watched a group of older boys do pushups in the center’s back lot. “I had cap guns in my diapers.”
He will be ready for training camp, Marquez said, because of his experience as a cadet. Under Aponte’s tough command, he has already been through it.
“This is not a pushup,” Aponte said sternly the cadets exercising in the lot. A young man in a red beret spit on the sidewalk, his body poised in push up position. “What’s wrong?” Aponte said, leaning over the cadet.
“My stomach hurts,” the cadet said.
“Your stomach hurts?” Aponte said. “We’re going to fix that problem. Turn over.”
The boys groaned as Aponte counted off stomach crunches.
“Aw man,” Marquez said as he watched and laughed. “You shouldn’t have said anything.”