Jimmy Phelps carries Darryl Gross

Teamwork: TAC officers at Savage never completely stop slamming the cadets, but the violence lessens as time goes by. Then comes the building-up phase of the program, with exercises meant to increase confidence. Jimmy Phelps carries Darryl Gross during a hike in the woods near Savage. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung)

BIG SAVAGE MOUNTAIN -- Derrick Horrey snaps to attention in the gymnasium of the Savage Leadership Challenge, just as he plans to snap to attention a few days later in the Marines.

In razor-creased fatigues, he and 13 other teen-agers stand shoulder to shoulder in two rows, backs straight, chins up, arms down, thumbs precisely at the seams of their pants. They hardly resemble the young thugs they were a little more than 20 weeks ago.

Horrey had been a crack dealer, like a lot of the other kids at this state boot camp for delinquents. They whipped strangers across the head for a buck, dealt dope on playgrounds, stole guns from houses and cars from streets, huffed glue in alleys, smoked weed wherever.

No more, they say.

Twenty weeks of body slams, fists to chins, a lot of bruises and a bit of blood spilled at the hands of guards hired by Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice apparently can change some kids.

Problem is, in a matter of hours these juvenile delinquents will not be under the drill they've faced at this camp in the woods of Garrett County.

Horrey will return to a home with no father and a mother who keeps getting locked up for drugs, fighting and prostitution. Jimmy Phelps will return to a mother with a taste for heroin, and Michael Taylor to a mother who lost him to crack.

Darrell Shanklin, Kevin McManus -- and the 12 other cadets known as Charlie Squad -- will again face the corners, the needles, the weed, the girls, the money and the despair.

Today, though, there is hope.

It's graduation day, a day of promises by the kids and by the state workers trying to set them straight. Horrey, camp guards promise, is going into the Marines.

One by one, the young men march across the gymnasium in a crisp military gait and puff their chests before a wobbling microphone. They look out at 11 rows of folding chairs, which hold few family members but a lot of dignitaries in suits.

The kids read speeches and vow to change. They thank their mothers and grandmothers, teachers, guards, each other and the Lord.

"I'd like to thank my tactical officers for helping me change my life."

"I get to start my life over, with a clean slate."

"I'll never let anyone crush my dreams."

Phelps, who went from ballplayer to glue sniffer and heroin snorter, swears he's over those dark days.

Shanklin, who never gave up the nine guns he stole on the outside, promises to go straight.

Roland "Reno" Scott, who set up shop daily slinging crack from a playground on Baltimore's Greenmount Avenue, says he's finished.

McManus, baby-faced car thief and crack dealer, plans to go legit, too.