Scared straight: A journey to a wilderness military boot camp

When my mother first told me that she was thinking about sending me to boot camp, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had never even heard of the concept as a twelve-year-old. I thought maybe it was like the military, but how bad could it be? In hindsight, her justification for what I saw then as an empty threat was somewhat reasonable. I was not an easy kid. I basically lived in indoor suspension at school for my defiance, and for the first time, I was given an outdoor suspension for a food fight. Apparently, I had run out of second chances.

The military wilderness boot camp was called JBC Scared Straight. JBC means Juvenile Boot Camp. One of their services was a weekend program that promised to discipline defiant and unruly children. “The boot camp is a three-day intensive program … it’s a wake-up call for kids who may be disobeying and disrespecting parents in a severe way — skipping school, running away from home, getting involved in drugs and other behaviors,” said Mia Holiday of Pembroke Pines, office administrator at the Elite Leadership Military Academy in Fort Lauderdale.

There’s a reason they call this program Scared Straight. Fear is the name of the game from the moment you’re either abducted or dropped off by your family. In my case, before dawn on Friday, I was dragged from the passenger side of my mom’s truck by a man in military uniform into the warehouse and told to face the wall and wait my turn to be shaven bald. When told to sit down for my haircut I put up a fight and was tackled to the ground. Let’s just say I was used to getting my way, and I wasn’t going to get my way this time.

About fifty teens showed up, approximately half male and half female, who were segregated (they did not shave the girls). We were hurried to change into uniforms and were given an apple to eat quickly. After boarding the bus, all of us were blindfolded, presumably to prevent the temptation to escape.

In hindsight, although I know that the warehouse is at Oakland Park, Florida, I have no clue where the campsite we traveled to was located. I’ve checked Google Earth and can only guess it was somewhere in the Everglades. It’s the only location that makes sense. What I do know is that the program was run by “Maj. Denise Smith of Miramar, who served for five years in Germany as a member of the U.S. Army’s military police and [who served] as the school’s commander… The boot camp and the school are under the umbrella of the Jam Youth Connection, a nonprofit program. Many youths who graduate from the boot camp enroll in the academy.” 

If my entire experience could be summed up in a single word, it would have to be exhaustion. We exercised for the entire weekend without much of a break and barely slept. It’s a strange feeling to try and sleep with a floodlight shining on you and the sound of a generator rumbling away. For the first night, everything seemed to go according to plan. Until…

Before dawn on Saturday, we were swiftly awakened, counted, and, to the surprise of the camp administrators, four of us were missing. Armed agents went searching for them in the wilderness and managed to bring back all of them. It seemed that to these agents, deserting the group is an offense that warrants having water poured on you, being yelled at, and having to carry a log on your shoulders. Note taken: don’t try to escape boot camp.

Perhaps the worst punishment I endured was being trampled by the rest of the group, then being told to walk on them, and then back and forth like that a few times. The fact that this experience was involuntary and done to children is what I think is most objectionable. If consenting adults want to do this to each other, more power to them. Just leave me out of it.

On Saturday noon, we got back on the bus and went to a military base to march and run an obstacle course that included a stretch of barbed wire. In the scorching summer heat, I crawled underneath razor-sharp blades, once on my chest and once on my back. Panicking was not an option. Until that point in my life, it was the most dangerous thing I had ever done. It was scary but exhilarating.

Later in the day, we were scheduled to visit a prison as part of the program of deterrence, but it was canceled at the last minute as we were about to enter the gates. I was so bothered by being in the Sun outside for so long that part of me wanted to go inside just to feel the air conditioning. For this part of the experience, we were spared.

On Saturday night, we marched like soldiers to a nearby beach overlooking a lake. This is one of the rare times that the boys and girls marched together. We even chanted military songs. Once we arrived, we started doing drills in the frigid waters. On the sand, we did the usual. Pushups, sit-ups, squats, and jumping jacks. It’s amazing the number of exercises I could do with all that adrenaline coursing through me.

On Sunday afternoon, before we returned to the warehouse, I cried because they told me I was staying behind and had to wave goodbye to the rest. Later on, we were reunited with our families. I remember eating fast food afterward with a hunger that made it taste like the best meal of my life. When I returned to school in June, to the surprise of all my friends, I was bald, stone-cold quiet, and petrified.

I never ran into another person who was there ever again, and the facility shut down a very long time ago. It didn’t help that it was located in Broward County, and I lived in Miami-Dade County. Innocence left me in many ways, but it’s better to grow up early than to be a child forever, which, despite its horrors, was one benefit. Stories like mine are more common than you think, and sometimes far worse. Teens have died at facilities all around the country and all around the world from the faulty premise that humans can be perfected by force and intimidation.

From what I can recall, the boot camp I attended in 2004 was private, and county-run camps still operate, but juvenile boot camps run by the state no longer exist in Florida. “Legislation that abolishes boot camps and replaces them with academies that rely more on education and aftercare, and are limited in their use of force, became the law of Florida on Wednesday [May 31st, 2006]. The law is named after 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, the Panama City boy who suffocated to death after drill instructors stuck ammonia tablets up his nose. The family of the 14-year-old youth arrived for a private meeting at the governor’s office looking somber. A few minutes later they emerged with Jeb Bush, who publicly expressed sympathy for their loss. Then, with the stroke of the governor’s pen, boot camps were abolished and replaced with STAR academies.”

These places are terrible, they have been shown to be unsuccessful, and they should be shut down,” said state Rep. Gustavo ”Gus” Barreiro, a Miami Beach Republican who chairs the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee, and heads a separate committee that is investigating the treatment of youth in state care. “I think they should be eliminated.”

If Scared Straight taught me anything, it’s that there are two types of fear in life. Sometimes we tremble with fear that justice will be served because we are at fault, because we are guilty, and our conscience knows it. But sometimes the opposite occurs, and we tremble with fear that justice will never come, even if we are innocent, even if our conscience is clear. We have to make peace with both scenarios. Even if one is more difficult than the other.

As the late Christopher Hitchens once said, “You didn’t have to tremble at the thought that God was just, you had to tremble at the thought there wasn’t a just God. A much worse tremble, if you see what I mean.”

Antonio Gimenez is a cybersecurity analyst and a journalist. He describes himself as a polemicist, essayist, and alchemist of ideas.