METRO DETROIT — On a recent April morning, Luke Clyburn, with his dog, Molly, a 13-year-old Newfoundland, boards an old Naval Academy ship he renamed the Pride of Michigan.
Docked on the Clinton River, several adult volunteers and young sea cadets prepare the ship for the 30 days they’ll be spending this summer under way on the Great Lakes.
They set cots. They inspect the 34-year-old ship’s engines, batteries and fire-retardant system.
Clyburn, part-time captain of the ship and a full-time real estate appraiser, has been supervising the Great Lakes Division of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets Corps for 35 years. Over that time, he’s watched teenage men and women mature on the open waters and go on to become U.S. Navy officers, SEALs, Army doctors, Merchant Marines or young adults entering college with a set of skills and memories others their age have yet to achieve.
Throughout those years, the ship has never been on the lakes without sea cadets running it.
“A lot of young people don’t get along,” Clyburn said, standing in the hull of the 80-foot ship. “Putting 20 young people on board a ship, they learn to get along.”
But due to the federal automatic budget cuts that went into effect in March, the U.S. Navy is withholding funding from the entire cadet corps.
“The navy is reprogramming money to account for its own cuts through sequestration,” said Jim Monahan, the executive director of USNSCC, from his Arlington, Va., office.
The cadet corps has two sources of federal funding, the National Defense Authorization Act and the U.S. Navy Recruiting Command. While the NDAA supplied $1 million to the corps this fiscal year, the Navy held back the $1.7 million the USNSCC had counted on in the past. The cut is forcing the corps, a nonprofit organization, to rethink the services and classes it will be subsidizing in order to make up for the extreme loss of funding.
Jeff Nichols, public affairs specialists for the Navy Recruiting Command, said the decision for the cuts came from the Pentagon, not within NRC.
“The money comes here, and we send it out to them,” Nichols explained from Washington, D.C.
Attempts to reach the Pentagon’s press office were unsuccessful.
For the Great Lakes Division, federal funding made up about 50 percent of its $125,000 annual budget, Clyburn said. There are no salaries in the budget. All adult supervisors, like Clyburn, are certified volunteers. Most of the money goes to the maintenance of the ship and the different classes that revolve around it, like scuba and seamanship training. This region’s cadet division is one of only three in the nation that offer such courses.
“These young people are not given a free ride,” Clyburn said. “These are kids actually maintaining a ship; they are operating a ship.”
The cuts will place more of the financial burden on the individual cadet, leading Monahan to fear it will turn into a “rich-kid” program.
“We haven’t turned away cadets for training until this year,” he said.
The courses the young men and women take are equivalent to Navy-level training, meaning that if the cadet chooses to enlist, they would do so with military qualifications under their belts.
Cadet Liam Pamplin, from Clawson, at 14 is already scuba-qualified, and he did so at a fraction of the cost and time that it would take outside of the sea cadets. If he enlists in the Navy in three years, he’ll be entering at a higher pay-grade than his peers.
“I’m trying to develop more leadership, and I know, in today’s world, this program is one of the best that we have,” said Pamplin, who joined when he was 13. “I had no idea what I was going to do before this program.”
His father, Tim Pamplin, said the teenage years are when kids are looking to define themselves. The best that parents can do is offer advice.
“Thirteen-years-old is an awkward age for a teenager,” he said. “You don’t know where life will go. All (parents) can do is bring everything to the table. You don’t tell them what to do. You just make suggestions.”
Over the last year, he’s watched his son gravitate toward a maritime career.
“It’s really exciting to see a young man excited,” he said. “It’s quite sad that the government will cut something like this.”
Tim Pamplin said the ship is critical to the division.
“If we lose the ship, it will all be land-based,” he said. “It would be like learning to be a racecar driver in a racecar without an engine.”
While on the Great Lakes, the cadets operate the ship on a 24-hour cycle. Along the way, the cadet divers work with universities in researching prehistoric forests at the bottom of the Great Lakes.
“Teamwork’s a big part of it,” Liam Pamplin said. “Without teamwork, the ship would not run.”
Ironically, supporters of the program point out that it was the lack of congressional teamwork that may lead to the permanent anchoring of the ship.
“They were cuts that I don’t want to say weren’t needed, but it was more of a leverage politically as I see it, and that’s affecting many, many things,” Clyburn said.
Although the corps has been around since 1958, the federal government and the U.S. Navy have been funding USNSCC for about a decade. With that funding, the number of cadets in the program has ballooned to 8,500, Monahan said.
While youth in the cadet program are not obliged to join the military, Clyburn said the Navy’s cut to the program is foolish because it has acted as a strong military recruitment program, allowing young men and women a glimpse at military life before committing three or four years of their lives to it.
“It allows them to know what they are getting into,” he said. “I’ve got cadets right now at the (U.S.) Naval Academy. I’ve got cadets at the Coast Guard Academy. Those are the kind of success stories that this program has.”
The April morning gave way to an overcast midday. The volunteers and cadets had lined the hull of the ship with cans of gray paint. Later in the day, they would be taking the ship to a dry dock in Algonac for painting.
Clyburn said he has given up on the Navy for financial help. Instead, he has turned to several yacht clubs for funding and spoken with some of the universities that have used the cadets’ marine biology research.
Still, with no federal funding, the Great Lakes Division has found itself $50,000 short of its annual budget.
Ultimately, he is hoping to avoid raising fees on the cadets.
“I don’t want us to be an elite program, where good kids can’t afford to join,” he said.
Those interested in donating to the USNSCC Great Lakes Division can contact Luke Clyburn at (248) 666-9359 or by visiting www.greatlakesdivision.org.
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