American Legion Earl Graham Post 159 member James Collins holds air rifles as youth prepare the range to switch to the prone position in Bryan, Texas, on Feb. 1, 2016. Photo by Lucas Carter.

Learning marksmanship and developing confidence

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Alyssa Tran was abnormally shy when she joined the Junior Shooting Sports Program (JSSP) at American Legion Post 159 in Bryan, Texas, a few years ago. Her mother, Krystina Tran, remembers being at a playground and Alyssa would “run to mommy” whenever another child approached.

Now age 10, Alyssa strides confidently and proudly to her mom during the shooting practices, often displaying a perfect 20-for-20 shots in the bulls-eye, as she did twice on Feb. 1.

“When she started this program she was shy but as she practiced and got better she got more attention and praise — she’s a really good shooter — and it built her confidence,” says Krystina, whose sons Ayden, 14, and Karson, 12, are also club members. “The Legionnaires are very supportive of her. When they are teaching her, they give her a lot of praise even when they are correcting her.”

The teaching has paid off as Alyssa is among the top shooters in the club, which has grown to 20 members. Last year, five team members, including Alyssa, won first place in a tournament among first-time competitors.

Alyssa shoots rifles, pistols and BB guns, which she likes the best because they are smaller and easier for her to handle. “It makes me feel proud,” she says of her accuracy. “It’s fun. It means a lot and helps us do something other than video games.”

Leah Morales, who is credited with organizing the program, says Alyssa has come a long way.

“When she first came into the program all of our rifles were too big, heavy and long for her, but it didn’t deter her,” said Morales, who is also Post 159 historian. “She was still very persistent and it encouraged us to get BBs. She has worked so hard, and she has been so successful that she has I believe surpassed her brothers. She has motivated other people to be better. She is very quiet. She brings a lot of momentum and a lot of character to our program. Sometimes she is the only girl here, but it never phases her. It probably feeds her drive if nothing else.”

In 2013, Morales was asked to create a Junior Shooting Sports Program, which began in earnest the following year. Thanks to a grant from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the program has Kevlar sheets behind the targets to protect the post walls from errant shots.

Morales’ vision is to grow the program to bring other groups into the club such as the Boy Scouts or a 4-H Club. “We have an enclosed building, and we have the space,” she says. “So they could come inside — especially when there is nasty weather — and shoot.”

The lessons taught during the weekly club practices go well beyond target practice.

“All the kids learn weapons safety, know all the basic firearms safety rules, which is important to me,” says Alex Tran, who is in the Army, a member of Post 159 and father of Ayden, Karson and Alyssa.

Morales notes that the lessons taught at the weekly practices will be life-long ones.

“Along with marksmanship there comes some things that maybe people don’t naturally think about and one of those is self-control,” Morales said. “You really have to be aware of your body. Also, these junior shooters have to size their rifles and have to take ownership for their mistakes because when it comes between them and the rifle, if they are off target it’s because of them. I think that is important to learn at an early age to take responsibility and to pause, to reset, to think about what you are doing.”

The club is an integral part of the post’s vision to be a leader in its community.

Sonia Pena said a post member invited her to bring her son, Isaac Contreras, to the JSSP practices and join the club.

“We’re grateful that the Legion has programs like this that we can participate in,” Pena said. “I feel that it is enriching his life. And gives him something to do.”

She has seen increased maturity in Isaac, now 11, since he joined a couple of years ago. “He has definitely matured,” Pena said. “He has a whole new respect for veterans. We go places, and he recognizes veterans. He’ll go open doors for them or tell them, ‘Thank you for your service.’ It makes me proud as a mom.”

For posts that want to get involved in JSSP, Morales has some advice.

“First, you need to decide what type of program you want,” she says. “You may want to sponsor a JROTC program, many of them are in need of sponsorship and support, and would love to be involved with The American Legion. But if you want to have it in your post, you should get in contact with the NRA to find out what resources are available, get your resources together and get a good team together.”

And the benefits of a JSSP club go well beyond the marksmanship and safety that is taught by Legionnaires.

America Jane Andrews-McCoy, an eighth-grader, joined the club two years ago and now serves as its president. “The Legion members were all really enthusiastic, and the enthusiasm spread to all the kids,” she said. “It sounded like it would be really fun. As a shooter, it would be a club with kids and adults coaching. It sounded awesome so I joined.”

And she has learned so much more than just shooting technique and safety.

“Since I started coming to the shooting program and practicing, I have gotten a lot better with my marksmanship,” America said. “With The American Legion specifically, compared to other shooting programs, they emphasize, ‘This is America, here are the values, here is what we have learned, here is why you should respect the military.’ The kids, for once in their lives, were smiling when they were learning about American history.”