The murmur of young voices was drowned out by the bellowing of a lone voice shouting out his push-ups. He was being disciplined for a code violation: He forgot part of his gear. That cost 10 push-ups. Plus one for Mike Force.
Mike Force is a military-style, high-adventure training program in West St. Paul that seeks to make law-abiding men out of about 40 teenage boys, most of them American-born Hmong. They wear full uniforms and carry gear. They learn martial arts. They pay for mistakes with push-ups.
And they like it.
"I'm interested in the Army and other cool stuff. Adventures, camping, survival skills, stuff you don't learn in school," said Ying Xiong, 16. "They boost you up to the wild side," he said.
The 10-month-old program is the work of the nonprofit volunteer organization Vets United for Families. A varying roster of adult leaders gather on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 9 p.m. to conduct training sessions.
The young men come from all walks of life, recruited from a variety of sources. Some come from the streets; some have never been in any big trouble. Some have been involved with Asian gangs, and now they want out.
That's a perfect fit for Bill Snyder, a Ramsey County deputy sheriff. After more than two decades in law enforcement, Snyder is considered one of the premier Asian-gang experts in the Midwest, and he volunteers his time at Mike Force.
"You've got to remember, these guys are still just kids. You give them responsibility, they'll respond. Getting them out of gangs, back on track, that's the most important thing to me," said Snyder.
He has gone so far as to meet with gang leaders to make sure they understand that one of his Mike Force recruits is now a former gang member.
"Some days I'm tired when I get here, but when I see the first kid arrive, I'm energized," said Snyder.
Jeeneng Vang, 17, joined Mike Force because his friends were going.
"It's fun to learn here. I learn self-discipline, I get to exercise _ that's my favorite! I have more self-confidence," he said. His newfound self-confidence was evident recently when a staff member called out a challenge _ one-handed push-ups.
"I knew I was the only one who could do it," said Vang. He accepted the challenge, dropped to the ground and impressed his peers and superiors with six one-handed push-ups.
Learning to be citizens
Not all members find "P.T." (physical training) so enjoyable. But Mike Force offers many other subjects.
Training sessions include map reading, land navigation, history, law, military courtesy, rappelling, martial-arts training, and eventually, parachuting. Staff Sgt. Donovan Taylor, from the 114th Combat Support Hospital based at Fort Snelling, teaches first aid.
"These skills can be used in combat or at the scene of a motor-vehicle accident. It teaches them to be good citizens," Taylor said.
Classroom instruction takes place in the Armory, but some instruction occurs in the parking lot across the street.
On a warm summer evening last week, four boys on bikes stopped on the corner to watch the Mike Force boys inspect their gear and practice marching.
"I've never really seen anything like this before. It looks interesting," said Nick Kaniewski, 13.
"Those are cool hats and uniforms," said Nick Rosen, 10.
Rick Pieper, who taught a Lao history class that night, invited them to come over and join the others. The kids were not ready to commit, but they rode away knowing they were welcome.
Mike Force members look snappy in their uniforms, and from behind, they are virtually identical _ until they remove their hats. Not all the kids are Hmong. P.J. Running is white. His grandfather, Jack Running, is part of the Mike Force adult leadership. P.J. joined at his grandfather's urging.
"For our family . . . it's been great. The discipline learned here carries over to home," said the elder Running. "One hour here means one hour they're not getting in trouble," he said.
Military training in public high schools has provoked public protests, but the Mike Force veterans are undeterred.
"We provide a sense of direction, self-discipline, responsibility, citizenship training, strong family values and spirituality," said Vietnam veteran Trudell Guerue. "It's not our purpose to prepare these kids for the military; but the military provides the best foundation for citizenship," he said.
The presence of a leg brace and the absence of some fingers on his left hand are just some of his scars from Vietnam.
"My involvement [in Mike Force] is, in fact, therapeutic for me. We maintain the airborne spirit," he said.
Long-range plans for Mike Force include the possibility of assisting in search-and-rescue missions, and training the young men to take over Mike Force leadership. One of the adults' goals is to work themselves out of a job eventually.
In the meantime, discipline still will include the number of push-ups assigned, plus one for Mike Force.
At a glance:
- Program: A military-style training program open to young men of all races.
- Place: West St. Paul Armory, 1346 S. Robert St.
- Schedule: Tuesdays or Thursdays, 6 to 9 p.m.
- Cost: Free. Uniforms and gear also are provided.
- Information: Call Bill Snyder at 651-248-2424.