- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard, seemed pleased by the turnout at the third annual National Guard Youth Foundation’s ChalleNGe Champions gala on Tuesday night at the JW Marriott Hotel. “Yep, Junior really brings ‘em out,” he said, nodding in the direction of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. while surveying the crowd of about 1,000. “Or else Trisha,” he added after glancing at the table where country singer Trisha Yearwood and Miss America Kirsten Haglund were doing their part to keep a lot of Defense Department bigwigs amused.

They all came to support the National Guard Youth Foundation’s ChalleNGe program, which accepts high school dropouts into boot-camp-style academies in most states. Cadets completing the 17-month program finish their high school educations and hopefully improve their chances for the future. (About 77,000 young people have graduated from ChalleNGe academies to date.)

Cadet Brandon Johnson, a tall 18-year-old, joined under court order and emerged with an SAT score that earned him a full scholarship to a military college. Cadet Brandon Moore, shyly responding to table mates’ inquiries, said he entered at age 15 and has just two weeks left. As guests bid on NASCAR memorabilia, he admitted that he had never seen an auction before, much less one conducted by Miss America and “Apprentice” star Kelly Perdew. Later, four other cadets related their own stories of poverty, abuse and bad choices. All credited the ChalleNGe program with giving them a fresh start.

“These kids might have been in jail by now, or dead, and the ChalleNGe turns them around,” said Maj. Gen. Allen Tackett, noting the example of a West Virginia ChalleNGe Academy graduate who became the radar-sonar operator on the Navy vessel that successfully shot down an inoperable satellite on Feb. 20.

Five awards were presented to ChalleNGe Champions for their support: Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Rep. Norman Dicks, Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Hall, Gen. Tackett, and Curt Kolcun of corporate donor Microsoft Inc. Presenters included Sen. Mary Landrieu; Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski; Oklahoma first lady Kim Henry; Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England; Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum; Maj. Gen. Martin Umbarger; and Gen. Vaughn. Television actress and USO entertainer Karri Turner served as emcee for the event, which ended with a performance by Miss Yearwood.

Joel Sparks

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