Firing off 500 rounds, Billings Young Marines aimed their rifles downrange for the first time as a unit Saturday in an event that their commander, Tom Piper, a retired Marine, hopes to become a monthly — or at least bimonthly — occurrence.
Piper has tried to organize an event like this before, he said.
But as a nonprofit organization that relies on volunteers and donations, they ran into a problem they are all too familiar with: money — or rather, the lack of it.
"Funds are the biggest issue," said Piper, a former Marine sergeant who completed two tours in Iraq. "Everything here is done by volunteers."
The Young Marines were able to overcome that problem Saturday with the help of Wade Fredrickson, owner of Three Sights Indoor Shooting Range on 1020 Central Ave., who volunteered his time, money and range to make it possible.
Fredrickson hopes to hold a similar event every month, as he said the group combines two of the country's "most precious commodities into one: our youth and our military."
"We do everything to support both," said Fredrickson, whose daughter, Hannah, decided to enlist after the attacks of Sept. 11.
Piper seconded that: "If it wasn't for the kids, we wouldn't be here," the commander said.
Before firing .22 caliber rifles Saturday, the Young Marines hit the books, spending one hour in the classroom, during which they learned about weapon safety.
In addition to rifle training, the unit also practiced marching and did some "PT," or physical training, which is something Young Marine Simon Hanson said he is "all about."
"Doing push-ups isn't punishment," he argued. "It's more like a reward."
Simon said he used to get in trouble a lot. When he joined the Young Marines, that all changed. He said the group gave him discipline and a sense of camaraderie, a theme many talked about Saturday.
"We all back each other up in the community," even at rival sporting events, Simon said. "We're not blood, but we're family."
Many of the kids Saturday aspire for big careers in the military. With hopes of becoming a Navy SEAL, Simon is one of them.
But for some, those careers will come sooner rather than later.
Such is the case for 18-year-old Young Marines Gunnery Sgt. Cameron Gibbs, who is in the process of joining the marines.
Gibbs, now in his last months at Senior High, plans to enlist as infantry. He hopes to ship off in the fall.
He said being in the Young Marines has changed him for the better.
"Before I saw myself as an individual, but now I see myself as part of a team," Gibbs said, adding that the experience taught him to apply himself.
He has also changed physically. Standing at 6 feet 2, Gibbs said he was about a foot shorter when he joined the group in 2005.
The transformation for seventh-grader Lance Corporal Tyler Andersen came in the form of his report card.
"Since joining, I've improved my grades," 12-year-old Andersen said.
Before he used to get F's, but now he gets A's and B's, he said.
Many parents helped out at the range Saturday. Marris Harris, whose son Tyger Harris went through boot camp last fall, was one of them.
She sees the Young Marines as a great experience for both of them.
"I think I've had just as much fun as the kids," Harris said, adding that she would recommend the group to any parent.
The Billings Young Marines group was established in 2005 and is now the last of its kind in Montana. As part of the International Young Marines organization, which has units across the United States and in Japan, it has sent members into every branch of the military except for the Coast Guard.
Piper said the group hopes to impact and empower the youth of America through discipline and leadership, thereby preparing them for future success.
"This isn't a program to set kids up to fail. This is a program to help them succeed," he said.
For more information about the Billings Young Marines, visit their website at www.billingsyoungmarines.com/.