From the ground, it's hard to make out Mike Lasky's face as he stands on the roof of the 35-foot building at the fire training center on Marathon Road in Kenai.
His red Young Marines T-shirt is identical to those worn by all 25 of the young people swarming the roof and the sprawling property below.
But it's easy to identify Lasky, set apart by his camouflage pants and hat, his loud but calm instructions to his peers and his utter grace in the face of a challenge.
Without a hint of fear, Lasky steps to the edge of the roof, walks past the railing and onto a six-inch ledge. Secured only by a yellow rope, wrapped around a carabiner strapped to his waist, Lasky stands on the ledge with his back to the drop below him. He gracefully leans back into the breeze and steps off the ledge, coming to a rest with his body in an L-shaped pose, feet flat against the wall.
He bends his knees and kicks, hands lightly releasing the grip on the rope. In seconds, he has rappelled down the building and once again stands on firm ground.
To some, the rappelling exercise is an act of insanity.
To others, it's dare-devil fun.
To Lasky, it's training for the future.
Lasky, the senior-ranking Young Marine in the state of Alaska, has done this before. It's only a small part of the training he has received in his three years of participation in the Young Marines.
And it's one of many skills he will take to the Marine Corps when he heads to boot camp in San Diego later this month.
The Young Marines is a youth education and service program for boys and girls age 8 through high school. The three companies in Alaska -- in Kenai, Soldotna and Fairbanks -- teach military history, customs and rank, exercises such as rappelling, marksmanship and seamanship and lifelong skills including survival, first aid, leadership and teamwork.
Lasky, who spent three years at Skyview High School and graduated in May from Kenai Alternative High School, joined the Young Marines at 15, after his father saw a notice in a newspaper about the group.
"I had always known I was going to go into the service, and the Marine Corps seemed like the most challenging branch," the 18-year-old said. "(Young Marines) seemed like a good opportunity."
Lasky has made the most of the opportunity by preparing for military service, honing his skills and solidifying his career goals.
Lasky plans to go on to work in reconnaissance with the Corps and has tentative ideas of a life as a career officer. He celebrated his retirement from the Young Marines Saturday night and also received his final achievement ribbon from the organization -- this one for lifesaving.
The ribbon -- similar in concept to a military medal or a Boy Scout badge -- acknowledges Lasky's calm behavior responding to a plane crash in Soldotna last year.
He was at a Laidlaw bus rodeo at the Soldotna airport in March 2001, Lasky recalled, when a Cessna's engine failed as it tried to land. The plane, occupied by the pilot and his son, began flipping in the air then hit the ground.
"I didn't really think about it," Lasky said. "I was already running before it hit the ground. You knew it was going to happen."
Lasky was the first person at the scene.
His mother, Carol, recalled that the boy pulled the son from the plane. Then, the younger Lasky said, he gave the pilot his shirt and treated him for shock until the paramedics arrived.
Mike Lasky leaves later this month for Marine Corps. training in San Diego, Calif.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
The Young Marines, Lasky said, prepared him for the situation with quality first-aid training and plenty of experience in staying calm under pressure. But, he added, even without that training, he probably would have run over to the accident anyway. That's just part of who he is.
Leadership and teamwork are big for Lasky -- and they are qualities the Young Marines have helped him develop.
As a senior-ranking member of the organization, Lasky often has the opportunity to help teach his peers. He helps run the orientation boot camps introducing other youth to the program.
"We try to instill leadership and teamwork," Lasky said, explaining that boot camp participants are expected to complete tasks together over two days with next to no sleep.
"They're tired, groggy and at their worst; everybody gets fed up with each other," Lasky said. "If they can work as a team in those conditions, they can do it in any situation.
Lasky also leads in everyday situations, teaching his peers tasks he has mastered and offering advice along the way.
"He's a natural leader," said Ken Crews, a retired Marine, commanding officer of the Alaska Young Marines in Soldotna and battalion commander for the state's program. "Once he learns a job, it's not hard for him to pass it on. I depend on him a lot."
Lasky hopes to take that leadership and group-dynamic on to his work in the Marines. He has enlisted as a private first class in reconnaissance, a field he hopes to work in for at least his first two tours, or eight years.
"I'd like having one of those jobs everybody has heard of, but nobody knows what it is," Lasky said.
Reconnaissance is all about secrecy and teamwork, Lasky said. For example, a team may be sent to Afghanistan to get information from a top secret complex.
"They'd drop a six-man team in the woods. The team would break in, take the information and get out. Once anyone realized it was gone, the Pentagon would already have analyzed it," he said.
Another team might then be sent in to destroy the complex.
"It's doing a lot of things without people knowing," Lasky said. "It's one of those things that when you get home, they tell you where you were."
The job appeals to him out of a sense of adventure and teamwork.
"There's a lot of mystery to it," Lasky said. "And when you're working in a small group, you develop such a close core. It's like extending your family by another five people."
Lasky said the Young Marines have him ready for the challenge, but the program also can be an asset for youth who don't plan to enlist in the military.
Cody Clark concentrates on his decent last Friday during a rappelling class held at the PRISM Fire Training Center for cadets enrolled in the Young Marines program. Youngsters took turns descending from the building's roof.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"It keeps them out of trouble, and it's nice because you get to be taught, led by your peers," he said. "They get a lot of good experiences, meet a lot of new people.
"We get to teach kids basic standards of honor, courage, commitment, discipline, initiative, tact and teamwork."
There's that word again.
"Teamwork is important," Lasky insists. "No matter what you do in life, you're going to have to work with a team. So, develop it when you're young."
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