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Youth Academy cadet joins Guard, tells story to new cadets

Youth Academy cadet joins Guard, tells story to new cadets

Mauricio Velasquez said he kept running away from his problems until he came to the Washington Youth ChalleNGe Academy. He, quite literally, ran away from home multiple times. He even ran away from the Youth Academy, heading to the ferries in Bremerton.

“I called my pops, and he told me if I kept running from things, I would never grow up,” Velasquez said. “So, if I keep running away from things challenging me, how will I ever grow up?”

Velasquez, 19, graduated from the Youth Academy in June 2023. Today, he is a member of the Washington National Guard, stationed out of Yakima.

In March, he returned to the Youth Academy with his recruiter Colten Nixon, where they talked to cadets during a career fair.

“The hardest day at boot camp is going to beat the hardest day here,” Velasquez told cadets. “Absolutely. I would say in terms of routine and discipline and things of that nature. As soon as you are used to the routine, you can get used to anything. You’re here for 22 weeks, and Army boot camp is 10 weeks. So, to me, it felt like it was nothing. I’ve done this twice.”

Mauricio Velasquez speaks to cadets in March 2024.

Velasquez said it took him two times to complete the Youth Academy. In 2022, he only lasted a couple of months before he was involved in a fight.

“Journeys for some of us are longer than for others,” Deputy Director Dennis Kerwood said. “And when I personally dismissed Velasquez, he asked me, ‘If you were going to dismiss me anyway, why have we been talking for so long?’ And I responded, ‘Because I care.’ And then I prayed he’d come back because dismissed cadets that come back often excel.”

And Velasquez did come back—going on to become company commander and starring in advertisements for the Youth Academy that aired on KOMO television and online.

He was even a speaker at the 2023 commencement.

“I am forever grateful for all of the cadets, all of the staff and all of the teachers,” Velasquez said during his commencement address. “There is something the commandant likes to say, ‘There will never be more people committed to your success than when you are here.’ It’s absolutely true. There isn’t a minute that goes by when someone isn’t doing something for you – whether you realize it or not -- preparing your transcripts, grading your homework, teaching you to be better than you could. This program allows you to be the best version of yourself. I’m the best version of myself for being here, and I am grateful I had the opportunity to come back.”

Surrounded by new cadets, Velasquez encouraged them to put aside their egos.

“The youth academy gave me a second chance,” he said. “I was afraid they were going to see all of the bad things in me. And I just tried to show there was still good in me.”

He said the lessons he learned at the Youth Academy have helped him become a better soldier for the Washington National Guard. It helped him get through boot camp simply by knowing and understanding the different exercises and routines. That got him noticed by drill sergeants, who put him in leadership roles right away.

He says he’s still learning his way through the Guard but is optimistic he’s found his place.

“You’ve got to be the kind of follower you want when you were a leader,” he said. “Be the best you can be.”