It is Saturday morning on Myrtle Avenue, a busy artery that runs through the center of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. At 9 o’clock the pizza joints and delis are just beginning to see their first customers of the day, and the metal gate of the barbershop is rattling open. Out in front of a modest brick building with a placard that reads, “United Church of God, Founded 1928,” a timid group of ten or 12 kids in full army fatigues scuff the toes of their recently shined black boots against the broken pavement, short-billed army caps -- what they call “covers” -- crumpled in their hands. By 9:30 their adolescent awkwardness has been suspended, and the group has grown to almost 40 as “formation exercises” begin in the overheated basement of the St. Stephens church. “On your face!” screams a sergeant who can’t be much older than the kids in front of him, as the roomful of boys and girls aged 5 to 18 scrambles into push-up position. The wall is lined with mothers in folding chairs, toddlers perched on their laps. A few potential recruits in sports jerseys and jeans eye the exercise drill warily from a corner. Their mothers are in an orientation meeting upstairs with the major. “I want y’all to scream when you’re doing push-ups! Those better not be knees I see on the floor! Scream, I said!” The sergeant weaves between the neatly lined bodies, “One sergeant, two sergeant, three sergeant,” grunt the cadets as a second round of push-ups begins. The Junior Cadets, founded three years ago by the Rev. Craig Williams of St. Stephens, are in part inspired by the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, which have been gaining popularity due to their claim that they instill discipline and structure into the lives of young people, particularly in poor and minority neighborhoods. Unlike the JROTC, the Junior Cadets are not funded by the military. Instead, the program is funded by the church, $5 monthly dues from every cadet, and out of the pockets of the training staff. Maj. Tony Williams, a Vietnam veteran raised in Brooklyn who entered the army at 17, runs the program. He believes that rigid discipline is the way to reach young people growing up in a poor neighborhood such as Bed-Stuy. “We saw the young kids getting lost,” he explains. “We have a lot of single parents and they can’t spend the time with the kids that they need to. They have to work two jobs, this kid has to pick up that kid, and when the older kid gets home he or she’s got to do the cooking, so the kids get lost in the sauce here, so to speak. I have had this program for three years and it’s working. The discipline, the structure is what they needed.” By 10:30 the education drill has begun. “Are you ready to learn something?” a female teenage lieutenant hollers. Every right fist in the basement raises in what almost resembles a Black Panther salute. “If you are ready to learn, sit on your butt right now!” The room crouches and the sergeant marches towards the front of the room. “Where was the Marine Corps founded, cadets?” he bellows down to a room of expectant faces. Eyvonne, one of the mothers watching the education drill, points to a tall boy of about 14, slumping in a uniform whose sleeves have already grown too short for his lanky arms. “That’s Glenn,” she says, laughing a little. “He’s the tallest one here.” She put Glenn in the Junior Cadets a year and a half ago because she was worried that he was “getting out of hand.” She says she heard about the program from a friend. “He’s better now, but he’s still got a ways to go,” she explains, smiling ruefully. Many of the mothers present express similar stories, of spending late nights wondering how they alone were going to control teenage children, and getting recommendations from friends or neighbors that they try the Junior Cadets. The program at St. Stephens has grown to include as many as 150 kids, some of whom travel from Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan to be there from 9:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. every Saturday. “This was my last resort before I sent him back to relatives in the Dominican Republic to go to military school,” says one mother, who asked not to be named. “Actually it’s a great satisfaction to know he’s suffering after stealing $600 from his mother,” she adds with an embarrassed laugh. Though these mothers are enthusiastic about the program and come to see their sons and daughters exercising in army fatigues, learning military call-and-response chants, and marching with out-of-commission rifles, they say they wouldn’t encourage their children to join the military. “I didn’t want him just standing on the corners, you know, like you see these young kids doing. I wanted him to have something to do,” says a woman who has two boys in the program. When asked how she would feel if they decided to enter the service, she responds, “It would be their decision, but I wouldn’t want it. I mean, I see a difference between this and the military.” Program leaders claim that they do not encourage the cadets to join the military -- “all we want them to do is become productive citizens,” insists Williams -- but at least two graduates have enlisted in the past three years, and others in the program plan to do the same. Jose Gonzalez is a stocky, friendly 17-year-old who has been in the Junior Cadets since its founding and is looking forward to graduating from it this year. He signed up for the Army a few months ago under the deferred enlistment program and is now a member of the Junior Reserves. He animatedly discusses the karate lessons he helps to lead, and repeatedly emphasizes that he feels the program offered him an out from a potentially bleak future. He pauses for a second when asked why he decided to go into the military. “Look, when I met Tony Williams he persuaded me to go into the army for the benefits, but if I hadn’t met Tony Williams I probably wouldn’t have made it past grade school,” he says, standing up straight and gesticulating firmly. “The major put a lot of investment in me, and I respect him. He’s put a lot back into the community.” As if on cue, Williams comes up behind Gonzalez, rubbing a fist brusquely across his buzz cut and catching him by surprise momentarily. “We call him el payaso (ITAL.),” Williams says, grinning, “That means clown in Spanish.” Many parents and cadets in the program express similar indebtedness when talking about Williams, and it is about more than just the five hours once a week. Williams has made a point of combining his weekly trainings with involvement in the cadets’ lives. He often signs on as an emergency contact or acts as a liaison or translator with their schools, seeking tutors when necessary and taking on a disciplinarian role even in the cadets’ homes. Williams is interrupted briefly to answer his ever-ringing cell phone. It’s a worried mother on the other end, calling as if to illustrate his point: “Which grades dropped?” he asks, “English and math?” He pauses to pull out a pen and scrap of paper from his uniform breast pocket, “O.K., give me the number. Yeah I’ll talk to him, O.K.” He snaps the phone closed, “See, before he came to me, his school didn’t even know who he was, he cut class so much, they didn’t even know his name. Now somebody knows who he is.” But at a time when more than 100,000 U.S. troops are at war in Iraq, youth military training programs are coming under increasing fire for targeting low-income areas. Some say there is a “poverty draft” at work. “The JROTC started in New England and the South in white, middle, and upper-class areas as an attempt to identify future officers, as a way to groom privileged kids for successful careers in the military,” says Kevin Ramirez of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO). “It changed drastically and began invading into urban, poor, and minority areas after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Colin Powell went to Watts and saw the poverty, the desperation that led to them turning on their own community, and decided that discipline and father figures were what was missing in the ghettos. He went back to Washington and recommended that these programs get extended and be encouraged in the inner cities.” Since then, JROTC and similar programs have multiplied in poor neighborhoods. But they are not grooming officers, says the CCCO. According to the group’s web site, 54 percent of JROTC participants and half of the military's front-line troops are people of color. “JROTC graduates are recruited directly into the lowest military ranks,” it says. “The military targets low-income schools in the same way tobacco and alcohol companies target low-income communities.” Another criticism of military recruitment in low-income neighborhoods is that it capitalizes on kids’ inability to afford higher education by promising big college money, “We stress higher education here. We want to help them through this period in their lives and then help them become productive citizens,” says Sheila Williams, executive director for St. Stephens outreach, “But unfortunately, because these kids don’t have any money they seek the military in order to pursue that higher education. I tell them to make sure they know what they’re signing on for.” “If a young person walks into a recruitment center and says ‘I want to join the military so I can get money for college,’” says Ramirez, “the recruiter has pamphlets to take home from 50 different programs that promise him higher education, but the fact is that 50 percent of service people never get or use that money. You have to serve four years active duty before you ever really qualify. By then you are four years behind your peers, and you have four more years of reserve duty to contend with while you’re trying to study.” Williams emphatically disagrees with the concept of a “poverty draft.” “It’s not true,” he says. “That’s not the way the Army is. There’s no draft of any kind, nobody’s making them do it, nobody made you go. It’s like any other job. You have the option of leaving whenever you want.” Some have wondered if there aren’t other ways of teaching young people the kind of discipline, commitment and structure they receive in military training, “In Atlanta, there are programs that apply the same sort of structure and discipline to an educational program,” says Ramirez. “Those programs emphasize personal responsibility just as much as military programs do.” But Williams believes that only strict military training can really affect these kids’ lives dramatically, “You can not train a kid to sit down and learn with a basketball. Because so many of these kids have not experienced discipline, they don’t know what discipline is, and to my surprise a lot of them love it, because to them somebody cares, it’s not like ‘here, go play PlayStation.’ I’m in your face, ‘Why haven’t you done your homework? Why didn’t you pass the test? Did you study?’” That philosophy and discipline has certainly affected Jose Gonzalez’s life. “If I hadn’t been in the cadets, here’s what would have happened: I would’ve been dead, or I would’ve been locked up, and I wouldn’t have even made it passed the ninth grade.” Now he’s looking forward to high-school graduation and then the army. Though he complains that the Junior Cadets are “too militaristic sometimes,” he grows excited when asked about the possibility of going to Iraq. “I love fighting,” he says. “I fight on the streets, I’ll fight in the army. I’ll go to Iraq and pull Osama bin Laden to pieces. When I find Osama bin Laden, the first thing I’m going to do is kick him in his chin.”