Dominick Gambino is only 12 years old. But he is on a mission to become a U.S. Marine.

Dominick Gambino is only 12 years old. But he is on a mission to become a U.S. Marine.

Gambino is off to a good start, thanks to the Independence Young Marines.

Think of the Young Marines as Boy Scouts, military style. Another difference is that it allows girls.

They march. They do push-ups. They lead.

The group nearly disbanded last year from a lack of adult leadership. Now, the Young Marines are doing well, highlighted last week by a graduation ceremony in which 12 recruits became Young Marine privates.

Gambino joined the Young Marines at 8 years old. He graduated three years ago, becoming a Young Marine. Now, he’s a corporal.

“Ever since I was 3 years old, I’ve had the idea in my head that I wanted to be in the Marine Corps,” Gambino says.

Gambino viewed a television commercial showing Marines. “I’m like, ‘Those guys look cool.’ I want to be like them. I’ve had it in my head ever since.”

When some college students ready to graduate cannot even decide on a career choice, how does the 12-year-old Gambino know for sure?

“I’ve had it (idea) for 10 years now,” he says. “I’m not giving up on it.”

Gambino, who attends Pioneer Ridge Middle School in Independence, this summer went to Washington, D.C. Gambino and fellow Young Marines marched at the National Memorial and Rolling Thunder parades.

Also, the group attended a leadership seminar. He went on 2-mile walks at 6 a.m. “It was intense,” Gambino says.

Adam Lawson, a Marine from October 2000 to February 2005, joined the group as it re-grouped several years ago. They needed a guy with military experience.

Lawson is the group’s training officer. He teaches basic drill maneuvers. Left face, right face – that sort of thing. He teaches physical fitness, too, and how to read a compass on a map or setting up campsites.

Lawson never got the opportunity to be a Young Marine. “I wish I did,” he says. “It would’ve helped me prepare for boot camp.”

The group does not force the children to become a professional soldier. “If they want to join the military, they’ve got a good start,” Lawson says. “We don’t yell at them. We tell them.”

A former Young Marines member graduated from Marine Corps boot camp a few weeks ago.

The group has expanded. When Lawson joined last year, they had five children in the recruit class. On Nov. 16, 12 recruits became Young Marines at a graduation ceremony at the Truman Memorial Building, where the organization meets at 6:30 p.m. each Tuesday for two hours.

It’s not for troubled kids. Sure, some parents bring their problem child. And the Young Marines tries to get those troubled kids straightened out.

E.C. Morris, an officer of the Young Marines, says the recruits have shown “tremendous personal growth” over the 13 weeks of boot camp. The recruits had to do 26 hours of classroom instruction and field training, including a physical fitness test.

They learned the history of the Young Marines, the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance. They learned basic first-aid training and field skills at Lake Jacomo. The recruits were taught about the different kinds of illegal drugs and the effects on the human body.

But most importantly, the recruits learn discipline and respect, Morris says. Those are powerful skills that can last a lifetime.

“They encouraged one another and succeeded as a team,” Morris says.

As Young Marines, the children help the Toys for Tots, a fundraiser the Marine Corps does each year during the holidays. They also served as ushers at Independence’s Veterans Day ceremony and handed out programs.

Young Marines and recruits helped clean George Owens Park on a Saturday. The group also picks up trash along a designated city street each month.

“Anything going on in the community, we want to get involved in,” says Valerie Cowick, whose son, Taylor, graduated at the ceremony.

Taylor was having trouble in school. “Paying attention mostly,” the mother said.

After becoming a recruit, “he has done a total turnaround,” Cowick said.

Chris Cavanaugh, 17, is a gunnery sergeant in the Young Marines.

His job is to keep order of the recruits. He passes down orders from the commander to the recruits.

Cavanaugh joined Dec. 16, 2006. His cousin was in the group. He yearned for the feeling of being in an organization that had military order. “When I heard about this, I jumped on the bandwagon,” he says.

After he graduates high school in one year, he will embark on the journey of becoming a Marine.

“I’ve wanted to join the Marine Corps since I was about 7,” Cavanaugh says.

The organization has prepared him for the real thing.

“But it’s helped me so much,” he says. “Before I joined, I was overweight. I was a shy person. Now I’m outgoing. This youth group is such a good thing for kids who want to join the Marines or even don’t want to join the Marine Corps.”

If Cavanaugh gets past his current rank of sergeant, he automatically gets promoted after completing boot camp.

Sgt. Andrew Valora, who returned from Afghanistan in late 2009, is a Marine Corps recruiter in Independence.

Originally from Arizona, Valora has visited more countries than states.

“Their dedication is evident,” Valora says of the Young Marines. “They want to make themselves better. That’s what the Marines is about. This is all on a voluntary basis. To me, that is amazing. Most youth nowadays, you don’t have that strive for bettering themselves.”

Valora did not know the Young Marines existed before speaking at the recruit graduation.

He was “very impressed” with what he saw at the graduation.

The Young Marines operate as a group, particularly when volunteering in the community. The real Marines are the same.

“Anything that the Marine Corps was able to put in front of me, they knew I would overcome it with a group effort,” Valora says.