Kentucky department connects with students from Guantanamo

There are almost 11,000 people living in Campbellsville, Ky., according to the latest census figures—not a huge town, but enough to be a bit overwhelming to five young men growing up at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“You go from a small community to people are literally everywhere you look,” said Jacob Salvatore.

Salvatore, Antonio Archuleta, Ryan Eckert, Stephen Walker and Khalil Watson attended American Legion Kentucky Boys State last week thanks to the efforts of the Department of Kentucky and specifically, American Legion Post 42 in Bardstown, Ky.

Annie Berget, Sadie Bittorf and Veronica Vargus attended American Legion Auxiliary Kentucky Girls State .

Post 42 founder and Kentucky Boys State Executive Director Dr. Peter Trzop and others have been working to establish a Legion post at the naval station and saw the opportunity to give the children of servicemembers and contractors at Guantanamo a chance to attend Boys and Girls State.

The eight students comprise the entire junior class at W.T. Sampson High School at Guantanamo; all told, the school, including elementary and high school grades, has a little over 60 students.

So being on the Campbellsville University campus as part of a group of 115 Kentucky Boys State attendees, along with other summer camps, required a bit of adjustment for the Guantanamo contingent.

“Seeing 100 new faces is a huge deal to them,” said Susan Eckert, Ryan’s mom, who chaperoned the boys. “I’ve noticed, and this is so awesome, I haven’t seen them really together. I’ve seen them at dinner each night with different kids.

“… This is a huge town to them; you have a Walmart,” she exclaimed.

The naval base at Guantanamo Bay, for obvious reasons, doesn’t have all the amenities those living in the U.S. proper are accustomed to:

• There’s one place to shop, the Navy Exchange, or Nex;

• Fast-food choices are limited to Taco Bell, Subway and McDonald’s;

• And entertainment options are limited: a bowling alley, the gym, an open-air movie theater.

“Everything you need is provided,” Susan said. “You might not have everything that you want, but definitely everything that you need is there. By far, the people it’s the hardest for are the high schoolers because younger kids don’t really know what they’re missing yet, elementary kids are fine, but high schoolers definitely have it the worst. There’s no sports teams, there’s no Internet, you’ve got eight kids in your class, you can’t get off base, you’re stuck there, they can’t do YouTube and Netflix and all those things.”

Still, that can be beneficial when it comes to grades.

“I came here, best grades I’ve ever had in my life,” Ryan said.

“I did better than I did in public school,” Watson added.

And a week in central Kentucky was proving to be a nice respite from the kind of heat and bugs the boys contend with in Cuba.

“The mosquitoes (here) aren’t as huge,” Watson said.

Still, the boys didn’t immediately jump at the opportunity when Trzop and Kentucky Boys State Political Director Stevie Ray first pitched the idea. For one, there’s the challenge that comes with flying out of Guantanamo, because of limited flights.

“It’s very difficult, expensive and unreliable to fly in and out. That’s probably why a lot of parents were like, heck no, (I’m not going along),” Susan said.

But the opportunities Boys State provides were too good to pass up.

“It looks really good on college applications,” Archuleta said. “I talked to my parents about it, they were like, ‘Oh, you are going, there is no doubt about that, you are going to go and you are going to like it.’ I was like, I’m going to like it anyway, it seems like a fun thing to do. Especially, you get an excuse to get off (the island) without having to go through too much hassle.”

Walker noted he’s not a fan of politics and doesn’t see himself pursuing a career in politics. But, “I came to learn more about it in general. Even if I don’t want to do it, I want to understand it,” he said.

Even midway through the week, Ray saw the impact the program was having.

“I see a maturity level that they didn’t realize they had,” he said.

While the week in the States was giving the boys the chance to see and learn more, they were doing a bit of teaching themselves, helping dispel some ill-conceived notions about life at Guantanamo.

“They think we’re right next to the prison,” Salvatore said.

Archuleta added, “I talked to someone today, he said he thought that there was a civilian side and we take a boat 10 miles away to the prison.”

No, the infamous prison isn’t next to the naval base, and those living there don’t go into Cuba proper either.

It’s still a challenging place to grow up, but as Archuleta said, “You definitely have to look at the positive side because if you don’t, you’ll find everything wrong with it and you’ll absolutely hate it.”