Ali DeLeeuw grew up in a small town in New Hampshire with just 10 students in her class. Painfully shy and a self-described book nerd, she preferred quiet times at home to exploring new opportunities. With her parents’ encouragement, Ali joined Sea Cadets in 2002 and participated in an indoctrination “boot camp” in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was a defining moment. “I recognized I had been exposed to something so few of my peers would ever experience. A whole new world opened up for me,” she recalled.
Today, Lieutenant DeLeeuw is a successful surface warfare officer. Her experiences as a Sea Cadet led her to NROTC at Boston University, where she studied biomedical engineering while working as an EMT. Her achievements while serving on board the USS Benfold (DDG-65) with Forward Deployed Naval Forces in Japan led to selection for a five-month intensive weapons training course. Lieutenant DeLeeuw has traveled the world teaching sailors weapon systems and protocols as a warfare tactics instructor.
“I still use the lessons I learned as a Sea Cadet about communication and leadership,” she explained. “When I reflect on how timid I was at a young age, I have no doubt that Sea Cadets gave me the confidence and competence to succeed.”
The Navy League created the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps in 1962. For six decades, Sea Cadets has been a training ground for young men and women ages 10 to 18, helping them develop the skills, knowledge, and confidence to become productive, responsible citizens.
Today, there are 5,600 Sea Cadets enrolled in 380 units across the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Mariana Islands. Nearly 2,600 volunteers lead these units, organize training, and mentor the cadets. In addition to cadet parents, volunteers include former Sea Cadets and retired, reserve, or active-duty military personnel who spend weekends and summer holidays building the next generation of maritime leaders.
The brilliance of Sea Cadets is that it offers young people the opportunity to try new things, fail in a safe environment, try again, and succeed. This builds well-earned confidence.
One confident and successful young man is Cadet Chief Petty Officer Kailil O’Brien, who graduated from the Sea Cadet Corps in May 2022 and is now a student at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport. Kailil joined a Sea Cadet unit in Ontario, California, in eighth grade and believes that without it, he might not have finished high school. “I get emotional when I think about my first day visiting the unit,” he said. “Every single person stopped to welcome me and teach me about the program. I felt total acceptance and knew from that moment Sea Cadets was a place I belonged.”
With biweekly drills, academic requirements, a strict code of conduct, and myriad training experiences, Kailil flourished. He learned time management, professionalism, and responsibility. He consistently met his targets, ranked up, and became a leader among his peers. Kailil was a member of the inaugural Cadet Chief Petty Officer training class and was selected to serve on the national Sea Cadets diversity and inclusion board.
“My generation has gotten away from knowing how to connect with others ‘in real life,’” he shared. “The first rule of the military is to check on your shipmates. I learned how important it is to respect, support, and connect with my peers and leaders. Sea Cadets gave me the tools I need to succeed and the discipline and confidence to apply them.”
Sea Cadets train in a highly structured environment that stresses personal accountability and teamwork. Cadets wear uniforms, adhere to fitness and grooming requirements, and are held to the highest standards of behavior. At young ages, they are given leadership opportunities—staffing summer training events, planning unit drill sessions, and teaching others. In this environment, they thrive.
Because of its rigor and emphasis on discipline, Sea Cadets prepares the next generation for military service. While not required to serve, more than half of cadets who complete the program enlist or commission.
As a Sea Cadet in Georgia in the 1990s, Lieutenant Commander William Ricketts was chosen as Cadet Chief, the highest rank, in his unit of 50 cadets. Sea Cadets taught him how to respect, lead, and motivate others. He went on to an impressive career in the Army and Navy, flying F/A-18 Super Hornets during numerous combat deployments and serving with a special operations command.
Today, Lieutenant Commander Ricketts serves in the Reserve and pursues a civilian career in law enforcement. As a deputy sheriff, he encounters many young people who have lost their love of country and do not understand the sacrifices military personnel make. “Sea Cadets is more important today than ever before. We need to instill pride in our flag. Sea Cadets is undeniably an invaluable path to building our future leaders.”
The variety of Sea Cadets training is impressive. For nearly every maritime job and Navy task there is an analogous Sea Cadets training. Last summer, at 350 training events, 4,500 cadets had a chance to sail, rappel, shoot, cook, run obstacle courses, scuba dive, and, of course, march. They learned medical techniques, robotics, naval history, and photojournalism. Training covered aviation, submarines, and special forces (SEAL and Marine Corps). Thanks to strong partnerships, this training often is conducted on Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and National Guard bases.
There are countless stories of individuals who learned valuable skills in the Sea Cadets and went on to successful military careers. Lieutenant Commander Jessica Wittner was a Cadet Chief Petty Officer in the Fresno, California, unit. From Sea Cadets, she enlisted, was commissioned via the Seaman to Admiral program, and flew F/A-18 Super Hornets. Recently, she was selected by NASA to become an astronaut. Cadets also have gone on to thrive in the private sector as attorneys, firefighters, television producers, and business owners.
Equally compelling are the examples of young people who find a safe haven, healthy adult guidance, and hope for a brighter future in the Sea Cadets program. One former cadet was labeled a troublemaker and was about to be expelled from high school. Sea Cadets gave him structure and discipline, and he is excelling in his civilian career. Another cadet said he had not wanted to leave training because of a troubled home environment. Sea Cadets provided a safe and nurturing space that was lacking at home.
Marine Corps Major Miguel Becerril joined the San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sea Cadets unit in 1969, just a few years after the organization was formed. As a young boy, Miguel was fascinated with aviation. He and his brother spent hours making model planes from balsa wood and watching jets take off at the Army base where his father was stationed. One day, he spotted some young boys wearing Sea Cadets uniforms, and he peppered them with questions. He soon joined the unit, where he pursued his passion for aviation by learning from active-duty jet mechanics stationed at the nearby naval base.
Miguel worked hard and took advantage of every opportunity to learn. “I will never forget serving on board the USS McConnell (DE-163) on an overnight tour when I was just 16. I was overcome with pride as we circled back into the harbor and all eyes were on our ship,” he noted. “I knew in that moment what it truly means to be a sailor.”
Miguel credits Sea Cadets with inspiring his attendance at the Naval Academy and successful career in the Marine Corps. Today, he is a senior policy analyst at the Office of Naval Research. “I owe everything to the military, and it all started with the Sea Cadets,” he said.
The United States needs fit, disciplined, patriotic young men and women to serve in its armed forces. Entering its seventh decade, Sea Cadets is as dedicated as ever to instilling values and an appreciation for the Sea Services, and it will continue to build leaders of character in the coming decades.