FORT BRAGG, N.C. - "I came here not really looking to make friends, because I wanted to get in and out, but I kind of learned that you need people to push you," said Crystal Phakonkham, a Tarheel Challenge Academy cadet, as she emerged, muddy and energized, from the 28-obstacle, Pre-Ranger Course.

Phakonkham crawled, climbed and swung her way through the pre-Ranger obstacle course on Jan. 21, ending a week of grueling grunt work on par with Army physical training regimens.

Similar to a scaled-down boot camp, the week's agenda featured squad drills, leadership classes, physical training, a team assault course, land navigation, the jump tower and three obstacle courses (Range 85, engineer obstacle course and Pre-Ranger Course). "I try not to think of it as a structured environment. I think of it as summer camp," said Phakonkham, who benefitted from the ROTC experience of her fellow female cadets.

Introducing at-risk teens to a higher standard is important to Soldiers like Staff Sgt. Ernesto Rodriguez, Pre-Ranger instructor, 82nd Airborne Division. "Most of these kids, I don't really know their background, but I'm pretty sure they had some tough (experiences) - they've probably been let down by parents or been harrassed," said Rodriguez. "Their confidence level is probably (low) right now, and a course like this lets them have fun ... they're in their own comfort zone right now. People aren't yelling at them - they're just letting (the recruits) do what they can do," he added.

Rodriguez said the course was designed for the Ranger buddy system, meaning Soldiers need to rely on each other while improving their leadership skills under stress (including lack of sleep, weather fluctuations and fatigue).

Dividing the cadets into groups of four girls served its purpose, as well. "Some of these obstacles are pretty hard to do with two Army guys. That's why we get these (teens) in fours, so they can motivate each other ... help each other out. Time is not an issue for them, it's just completing the obstacle, building their confidence level up."

Twenty-seven female cadets joined their male counterparts for the fast-paced program that is held twice a year on Fort Bragg.

According to Clem King, team leader for the female group, the teenagers are high-spirited and self-motivating. Visiting Fort Bragg is one of the first phases of this five and a half-month program designed for high school dropouts, to improve their life-coping skills and employment opportunities.

Staff Sgt. Jared Colvig, Headquarters and Headquarters Co., 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Abn. Div., worked with Tarheel Challenge Academy during their stay.

Throughout the week, he fielded a host of questions from cadets like, "Do you guys really do this' You guys are crazy," or "Will you do it with me'"

Soldiers were always on hand to perform the tasks with cadets and encourage them along the way.
"Some of them might come into the military too, which would be pretty cool to see - (going from) troubled kids into military life," Colvig added.

He seems to have at least one recruit-in-waiting, as Phakonkham revealed after her successful run of the obstacle course.

"I changed my mind from going into the Air Force to the Army," she said. "I was thinking something in the medical field. I really want to be an anesthesiologist."