JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated in a survey 15 percent of America's youth are drinking alcohol before age 13, 35 percent ingest marijuana before age 16, and 17 percent drop out of high school.
Programs and agencies litter the frontlines of this battle for America's future, each fighting to shed light on the lives of at-risk youth.
Among them, one program has taken a unique approach, and it doesn't fall under the department of education but under the Alaska Department of Military and Veteran Affairs.
According to their website, the Alaska Military Youth Academy Challenge program is a 17.5 month, quasi-military residential and non-residential high school which uses military values and methodology to reclaim the lives of Alaska's at-risk youth.
Of particular note is the 22-week residential portion, wherein candidates go through an education and training experience very near to military basic training.
"It's the hardest thing [I've ever done] mentally for sure," said Cadet Cody Smith, who recently passed the 12th week of the program and has lost 35 pounds since beginning the program.
Cadets are assigned a mentor who can communicate with them during their time in the program. Smith's mentor is Staff Sergeant Erik Fortenberry, a 673d Logistics Readiness Group's Fuels Management Flight fuels distribution supervisor.
Approximately four weeks into the program, Fortenberry introduced himself to Smith and began a relationship of edification, guidance and respect.
When first arriving at the academy, cadets were treated to a heaping pile of shock and awe many military members may recall from basic training. What followed was two weeks of emotional and physical pressure many of them may have never felt before.
"Yeah, it's tough," Fortenberry said. "But when it comes down to it, do you want to do a couple pushups, or do you want to be in jail? They push them a little bit, but it's all for a reason."
Many don't make it, and those who do earn the privilege to be called cadets during a ceremony known as Acclimation Graduation.
"After Acclimation Graduation, I thought 'I can do this,'" Smith said.
Classes at the AMYA are dramatically smaller than an average high school, allowing for more one-on-one tutoring. For many, the academy is their last chance to get a high school diploma or General Education Degree, so they can stand on their own two feet as they transition into America's workforce.
"Hopefully I'll get my GED and join the military," Smith said. "I wasn't good in school before; this program is the last opportunity for me."
Each cadet comes from a different background, with a different story and different goals; but they all go through the same experience. Likewise, each mentor comes from a different background and is volunteering hours of their time to these youth for different reasons.
Fortenberry, a native of Franklinton, Louisiana, arrived at JBER in December 2014, and has been involved in the AMYA mentor program since February this year.
"It really interested me, because it was a chance to get involved with some kids who have made some bad decisions and try to get them on the right path," Fortenberry said.
He and Smith write each other throughout the week, and the cadets are offered visiting hours where mentors can visit, talk with and encourage them.
"The more I became involved, the more I saw what they do," Fortenberry said. "The more I realized what they are doing for these kids. For the vast majority, this program works."
Fortenberry said the program stood out to him, because he thinks the military may have very likely saved his life.
"The ultimate reason I became involved in the program is it is a chance for me to be able to give back," he said.
As a youth, Fortenberry said he found himself slowly being sucked into a toxic lifestyle.
"I was your typical punk teenager," he said. "I always wanted to be hanging out with my friends, and some of them weren't the best of influences."
As he grew older, his friends graduated from bad influences to having adult problems with the law, and Fortenberry began to see what was at the end of his tunnel; he didn't like what he saw.
"There came a point in my life where I looked at myself, the people I hung around with, and I asked myself -- Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? The answer was no, I don't want this," Fortenberry continued.
Roughly 10 years ago, Fortenberry took ownership of his future in a Panama City, Florida, Air Force recruiter's office. He made a decision that would dramatically alter the direction his life was headed.
"I'm pretty sure if I had not joined the military, I would either be in jail or dead now," Fortenberry said.
While AMYA is not designed as a military recruitment tool, it does provide cadets with some of the benefits of military training.
Fortenberry said he wasn't a bad kid, but he definitely had some bad influences, and it was beginning to show.
"Some of these kids are going through that as well," Fortenberry said. "Except now, they have someone who's there to say 'You're going to learn today.' It teaches humility, and it gives them the social skills they need to survive in the outside world."
With the skills they've acquired during their time at AMYA, and the continual guidance of mentors like Fortenberry, cadets are equipped with a toolkit they can use to make a difference in their lives.
"Our role [as mentors] really takes shape when they are out of the program,” Fortenberry said. "[Cadets] who've gone to this program are going to get out and think 'Ok, I want to work for this company, this is what I need to do to get there.'
"That’s where we come in, they tell us they have a job interview or something and we say 'Okay, let me help you, let me set you up to succeed,’” he continued
In the end, that's what it's all about; the AMYA succeeds when its cadets succeed.
"It seemed to me like this is a great chance for some of these kids to be taken away from their negative influences and put into a different world," Fortenberry said. "A world where they have to develop teamwork, communication, physical fitness, education, and they have to use all these different concepts to work together toward the goal of graduating the program."
Sometimes at-risk youth don't see the options in front of them. They're too busy running through the dark.
"I want to show them some things they can do to better themselves," Fortenberry said. "Not just what they've done wrong. I want to show them there's a light at the end of the tunnel."