After attending Space Camp in July 2021, Kenna Powell returned to her home in Virginia intent on joining the Space Force someday.
The high school student was inspired after a visit to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which came about through Powell's involvement with the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps. A seaman, Powell has been a Sea Cadet for 1½ years.
"I get to go [to] crazy places and do crazy things, but if I never heard of Sea Cadets, I wouldn't be as smart as I am now and I wouldn't know things," Powell said. "I probably wouldn't even want to join the military if I hadn't heard about Sea Cadets."
Established in 1962, the corps targets young people in an attempt "to build leaders of character by imbuing in our cadets the highest ideals of honor, respect, commitment and service," according to its website. The year-round program includes more than 6,400 cadets spread across two groups: the Navy League, for ages 10 to 13, and the Sea Cadets, for ages 13 to 18.
Cadets participate in monthly drills with their unit -- about 400 can be found in the United States, Guam and Puerto Rico -- and in seven- to 14-day boot camps centered around military instruction and team-centric activities. They also attend advanced training camps in several fields, including seamanship, field operations, scuba and explosive ordnance disposal. Powell traveled to Alabama for one such camp to learn about space.
Registration fees vary per unit. The program is sponsored by the Navy and Coast Guard.
"It's fantastic to see them come in as a young 10-year-old, very shy ... and to come out of their shell and be confident with themselves and learn respect, responsibility, communication and all of that," said Lt. Michelle Novinger of the Sea Cadets' Flying Tigers Squadron in Indiana.
Novinger has been involved with the Sea Cadets for eight years. She and her husband Scott, a retired petty officer second class, enrolled their sons -- Koen, now 22, and Grant, 20 -- as Sea Cadets. Both have become submariners in the Navy.
While the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets' primary mission is not to convince young people to enlist in the military or consider attending a service academy, they train on naval and military installations. Navy SEALs assist with the program, as do other active-duty, Reserve and former service members among the corps' 2,600 volunteers.
From 1988 to August 2021, a total of 832 Sea Cadets had been admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy, Jennifer Cragg, director of strategic communications for the Sea Cadets, said in an email.
Scholarship opportunities are available, and corps graduates can enter the military at a higher rank -- provided they show proof of advancing to the E2 or E3 pay grade while in the Sea Cadets, Cragg said.
"If they decide not to go enlisted and they want to go to an academy, the academies look at these cadets a lot more favorably than just a person off the street, because they do have that military knowledge," Novinger said. "They learn how to march and do everything that persons in the service do."
Hailey Pippin, 13, is a seaman apprentice with the Flying Tigers.
"From this program, it just feels like it's home," she said. "Home is in the Navy for me."
Pippin plans to stick with the program through high school, following the path forged by U.S. Naval Sea Cadets such as Andrej Klema of Ellicott City, Maryland. Klema spent six years with the corps, rising to chief petty officer before graduating recently. He plans to study naval architecture and marine engineering at the Webb Institute in Glen Cove, New York.
Klema mentioned the influence of a retired chief petty officer in the Coast Guard, who ran recruit training for his Sea Cadet unit.
"He has really given me a new sense of discipline,'' Klema said. "I thought I was disciplined before, but the discipline he put into me for how to treat every single thing that I do was incredible."
Beyond everything that she has learned, Powell said the Sea Cadets appeal to her on a much more basic level -- one to which most teens can relate: It's just plain fun.
"It's really the most amazing experience that I've gotten to be a part of," Powell said.
-- Stephen Ruiz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interested in Joining the Military?
We can put you in touch with recruiters from the different military branches. Learn about the benefits of serving your country, paying for school, military career paths, and more: sign up now and hear from a recruiter near you.