By Karen Billing
Staff WriterRancho Santa Fe teenager Blake Chaffin recently survived “10 days of craziness” at the Devil Pups program at Camp Pendleton, a physically and mentally challenging Marine-style boot camp.
Devil Pups, a nonprofit organization that is not sponsored by the Marines, aims to teach teens about self-confidence, teamwork and the importance of goals. The program borrows its name from the Marines’ Devil Dogs nickname.
Blake dominated the final Devil Pup challenge, besting Old Smokey, a huge mountain that they had to climb two miles up at a “ridiculous” 70-degree angle. Blake made it to the top first out of over 300 kids and was honored by receiving a challenge coin from a first general of the Marine Corps.
“It was an honor to shake hands with a guy like that,” said Blake, an incoming sophomore at Canyon Crest Academy.
To attend Devil Pups, Blake first had to apply to be able to attend and complete a physical fitness test. He was in good shape as he plays lacrosse, but he also prepared for his 10-day camp by going for runs and doing push-ups and sit-ups around the house. Dan Lara, the barber at the Rancho Santa Fe Barber Salon in the village, supplied him with his buzz cut.
“The first three days were awful,” Blake said of adjusting to the encampment commanders’ constant yelling and getting in trouble for things like scratching your nose or not making eye contact.
Blake said his “brain clicked” after those first few days and he got used to getting up at 4 a.m. on little sleep, the yelling and eating Marine Corps-style MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat)—Blake said the Buffalo chicken had the consistency of pudding.
“The program isn’t for the faint at heart, there are some things that are really difficult,” Blake said, noting on the first day three boys were crying as they made their beds.
Twenty boys would drop out of the program.
Overcoming your fears and doubts was a daily challenge. One day the Pups had to jump off a ledge into a pool. They started at 15 feet, moving up to 25- and 35-foot jumps.
“I’m terrified of heights like that,” Blake said, but he made it into a leap of faith and walked off all of the ledges. “You feel so much better afterward. You feel so much more capable. They tear down everything you’ve known up to then and make you better than you were, and stronger. They build you back up.”
The Pups walked in formation, ran five miles on the beach one day and completed a mud run course on another. The mud run included drills of push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks in between running and crawling through the sludge of mud—Blake thought it was more fun than punishment.
One night they camped outside, sleeping with nothing more than a poncho. Blake had noticed all the little holes in the ground where they had set up camp, thinking they were some kind of rodents. The holes were actually home to tarantulas—Blake spotted one crawling on a fellow Pups’ face in the middle of the night.
The Pups were trained to work as a team, if one person in their platoon made a mistake, the whole group was punished. They weren’t allowed to say the words “I, mine, my or me” — only “This Devil Pup,” a very difficult adjustment. They also had to respond to everything with a loud “Aye, aye Sir,” a habit that was hard to break even when he got home.
The first thing Blake did after his July 16 graduation was go to In-N-Out, where he downed two double doubles, two animal-style fries and a strawberry shake. Then he slept like a baby.
Blake will take leave from his “10 days of craziness” with a relaxing trip with his Boy Scout troop. Troop 766 is heading to Florida for a sailboat fishing excursion. He said it’ll be close quarters, but he’s used to it.
After Devil Pups, he’s ready for just about anything.