Saturdays to a teenager are a precious commodity a glorious, 24-hour, school-free period to sleep in, stay up late, hang out with friends, watch TV, indulge in their hobbies and basically do whatever they want to do.
It is unusual to find a teenager who would relinquish all or even a part of this day without a major battle, whether it's for household chores, homework or a visit to a grandparent. Yet since the age of 15, David Nussbaum of Sterling has been willingly sacrificing his Saturdays to participate in a program where he is required to work on community service projects, take tests and do push-ups, all while under threat of being yelled at.
Actually, "sacrifice" isn't the right word. For Nussbaum, it isn't a sacrifice to be a member of the Young Marines. It has been his main goal in life.
"Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be in a military-type environment," Nussbaum, now 18, said. "Just the look, and the respect everybody gives the military."
Nussbaum joined the Arctic Young Marine program in Kenai when it started in 1999.
When her son jumped at the chance to join the program, Linda Nussbaum was not surprised.
"I kind of knew he wanted to do that since he was a little guy," she said. "He used to run around in the camos a lot."
When he first joined the program, however, Nussbaum wasn't quite as gung-ho about it as he had been as a child. The program requires recruits to attend 13 weeks of boot camp training with all the yelling and push-ups that entails every Saturday for seven hours a day.
"When I started going, I didn't really like it," he said. "It was really hard. After the first week I didn't really want to go back. ... The yelling, the push-ups, all the hard work you had to do you had to do it right, right now, or get yelled at and drop and do push-ups."
But Nussbaum stuck it out. He became an honor graduate of boot camp and was promoted to private first class. He has since been promoted to first sergeant a rank that usually takes five to eight years to achieve. Nussbaum did it in three.
The list of his achievements doesn't end there.
The breast of his neatly pressed uniform is packed with the ribbons he's earned, including marksmanship, seamanship, sportsmanship, leadership, good conduct, an academic ribbon with a gold lamp for maintaining a 3.5 grade-point average while at Skyview High School, and a life-saving ribbon he was awarded after rescuing a fellow Young Marine from the Swanson River during a camp out.
Nussbaum has achieved more in the program than the ribbons on his chest represent, however. Last July he graduated first in his class of 80 from a senior leadership school in Rhode Island. This year he achieved his most prestigious title yet a nomination for Young Marine of the Year, an award recognizing a Young Marine's outstanding participation, contribution and personal achievement in the program.
Nussbaum was one of seven nominees for the award, out of 19,000 Young Marines in the nation and in Okinawa, Japan. He and his family attended the Commander's Conference in Biloxi, Miss., this month, where the award was given out.
"It was incredible seeing the best of the best there," Linda Nussbaum said. "They were really sharp."
Though Nussbaum did not get the award possibly because he did not have the time free to do the traveling and public appearances that are required of the Young Marine of the Year he did get a $1,000 scholarship and the legacy of his achievement which he can pass on to new Alaska Young Marine recruits.
"The kids here will see that and say, 'Wow, someone from Alaska was able to do that,' and they'll be able to do it too," he said.
Nussbaum has gained more than awards and over-sized scholarship checks (which the family had to wrestle back to Alaska on airplanes) from his experiences in the Young Marines.
Gaining new skills and knowledge is a hallmark of the program. Aside from the marching and upper-body-strength developed in boot camp, Young Marines participate in a wide variety of activities. After boot camp, Young Marines split Saturdays doing drill and physical training one week and educational and community service activities the next. On Monday, for instance Nussbaum and other Young Marines will participate in the Memorial Day service at Leif Hansen Memorial Park in Kenai.
"A lot of the young kids kind of see (Memorial Day) as another holiday, or not even that," Nussbaum said. "... Because they're not told what the holiday means and how we got our independence."
Nussbaum has done rappelling at the fire training center in Kenai; attended a Youth Firearms Education Day in Eagle River; become adept at cold-weather survival, camping, CPR and first aid; put in hundreds of hours in community service projects; and has advanced in the program to where he instructs batches of new recruits.
"I get to yell," he said. "I still don't understand how a person can yell at the kids and have the kids still like you for it."
Nussbaum's parents have marked his achievements in the program every step of the way. According to John Nussbaum, David's father, the program is great for giving kids structure and something positive to be involved in.
"They come out of there as respectful kids," he said. "... They teach them discipline, honor and courage."
In Nussbaum's case, modesty could be added to that list, since he downplays the importance of some of his achievements. Though he sidesteps chances to brag, he does so in a polite manner that is surprising in an 18-year-old (you will never hear him utter the word "yeah," for instance, only "yes" and "correct").
His parents are not reluctant to brag, however. John Nussbaum eagerly tells of how he hears the brand-new Young Marine recruits make comments like "I want to be just like 1st Sergeant Nussbaum."
"We are proud of David and support him and what I wish I could have accomplished when I was younger, I see in my kids," he said, referring also to David's older brother, Ben, who is a championship body-builder and works at Unocal. "I see them achieve it," he said.
Nussbaum said he's glad for the skills and discipline he's gained from his experience in the Young Marines, which he will put to use when he goes to Marine Corps Boot Camp in Camp Pendleton, Calif., June 1.
Nussbaum enlisted with the Marines last year on a delayed-start basis. He will spend 13 weeks in boot camp, then come home to Sterling for 10 days.
"I just can't wait to graduate Marine Corps Boot Camp and come back and work with the kids with all my experience and see how much they've grown," he said.
Nussbaum will then attend basic infantry school for a few weeks. After that he plans to attend a combat engineer school in North Carolina. Following his graduation, he will be assigned to his first station.
Nussbaum plans to make the Marines his life's career. The war in Iraq and other recent world events have not deterred him from that goal. Instead, he says that motivates him even more to be in the service.
His family supports his decision as well.
"We really need a good strong military and we need some strong men and women in it," John Nussbaum said. "That's how we see it. We support him."
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