Photograph by Sarah Blesener, Alexia Foundation, Catchlight
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Bailey, 11, awaits an outfit inspection during a weekly Young Marines meeting in Hanover, Pennsylvania.The Young Marines is a not-for-profit organization focusing on youth development in categories such as citizenship, patriotism, and drug-free lifestyles.

Photograph by Sarah Blesener, Alexia Foundation, Catchlight

A New Generation of Kids Learns to Live Like Soldiers

Photographer Sarah Blesener visits a group of Young Marines being taught to embody a patriotic love of God and country.

Over the past year, photographer Sarah Blesener has been visiting patriotic youth groups around the country, from teens being trained as border guards in Texas, ROTC chapters in New York, a patriotic church camp in Utah, and a young woman in Nebraska preparing to head to the military once she graduates from high school. Her aim has been to explore how different combinations of religion, love of country, and military-style training come together in the teaching of “new Americanism,” which Blesener defines as a renewed embrace of the centuries-old theme of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny.

One group that Blesener followed was the Hanover, Pennsylvania chapter of the Young Marines, a nonprofit group which has 300 clubs around the country. Participation is open to boys and girls ages 8 and up as an after school program. The recruits take part in a military-style boot camp, fitness drills, and weekend encampments, as well as engaging in recreational activities like dances and visiting theme parks and historic sites.

“Young Marines is an example of mixing patriotism and militarism, which goes hand in hand with a lot of American culture. For many of the kids, their participation is completely divorced from politics. It’s about camaraderie and providing an important stepping stone for their future.”

While Blesener has approached her project with a critical eye, she is sensitive to the fact that many of the leaders of the groups she photographed were concerned about being put into a box of extremism, especially in the current charged climate.

“At a time when everything feels so divided, it is important to listen to other people and have insight into their worlds as fellow Americans,” Blesener says. “When it comes to young people I want to show this is complicated and nuanced. It is also interesting to look at how these ideals are being developed. ‘Make America Great’ is not a new concept.”

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In the early afternoon, recruits go through the hardest part of their recruit boot camp weekend: changing from their old clothes into their new Young Marine outfit. Camp Tuckahoe, Dillsburg, Pennsylvania.

Sarah Blesener's project, Beckon Us From Home, is supported by a fellowship from CatchLight with the Center for Investigative Reporting as well as a grant from the Alexia Foundation. She is represented by Redux Pictures. You can see more of Blesener's work on her website and follow her on Instagram.