Challenge Academy grad youngest Soldier in Africa

Story by Sgt. Alexa Becerra, Task Force Longrifles Public Affairs  

Pfc. Sweeney

Pfc. Michael Sweeney is the youngest Soldier with Task Force Longrifles on their deployment to the Horn of Africa. Sweeney is also a graduate of the Bluegrass Challenge Academy at Fort Knox, Ky. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Alexa Becerra)

CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti – At the age of 17, teenagers face many challenges. They are close to graduating high school, they are looking at potential colleges, and are also about to hit the magic age of 18 when they are considered adults.

That wasn’t the case for Pfc. Michael Sweeney.

At 17, Sweeney, a native of Burlington, Ky., had already enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard. He had recently graduated with his GED from Bluegrass Challenge Academy, a school run by the National Guard designed to train and mentor selected at-risk youth to become contributing members of society.

“The Challenge Academy instilled a sense of discipline in me that I really needed at that time,” said Sweeney. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for the Academy.”

After receiving his GED, Sweeney set off for basic training and advanced individual training to become a cannon crewmember (13B) in the National Guard. He returned to Kentucky in April of 2012, and shortly after arriving to his new unit he received news about their upcoming deployment.

“I expected to deploy when I joined the Guard, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be so soon, “said Sweeney.

His case was a bit different than others; he was still 17 years old. He would turn 18 only a few days before the deployment.

“My squad leader sat me down and talked to me about the deployment,” said Sweeney. “He asked me if I was still willing to go, and when I said yes he let me know that if I had any questions I could ask him or any of the other Soldiers since most of them had deployed before.”

From that day on, Sweeney became the ‘Baby of the Battery’ and the ‘Baby of the Battalion’. He is the youngest of more than 500 Soldiers deployed here to the Horn of Africa in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“It has been different being the youngest,” said Sweeney. “At home I was the oldest out of four, and now I am the youngest out of the battalion.”

He said that his fellow Soldiers have been great mentors to him and they are always willing to give him advice or answer his questions.

“The guys here have all taken me under their wing, and have helped me become a better Soldier and hopefully a better person,” said Sweeney.

Sweeney said he has had many opportunities to learn about different cultures by volunteering in the local community and also from going on a well-drilling mission in Ethiopia.

“This deployment has made me truly appreciate what I have back home, people here don’t have much but they make the most of it,” said Sweeney.

Sweeney has decided to attend diesel mechanic school upon his return home, and plans to stay at least 20 years in the Guard.

“This deployment has been overall a great learning experience for me, and I have made lifelong friends and mentors,” said Sweeney.

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