NEW PALESTINE — Huston Dowden pulled the military baseball cap off his head and rubbed his hand over his buzz cut, smiling as he thought of his long hair, long gone.

Cutting his hair was just one of the many changes Dowden, 13, went through this summer when he spent two weeks in Alabama at an official Extreme Military Challenge, a real-life boot camp for teens ages 13 to 18 who are looking to learn leadership skills.

Dowden, a Doe Creek Middle School eighth-grader, was looking for a life-challenging adventure over the summer, and his family helped him find it.

The New Palestine teen said during seventh grade, he didn’t always make the best decisions — not organizing his time well and letting his grades slide. He and his mother, Melissa Dowden, decided to figure out a way to challenge him during the summer so he would approach eighth grade in a different manner.

His mom called her brother, a U.S. Air Force member who suggested Dowden try an extreme challenge boot camp. She decided it would be a good idea and signed her son up.

Attending the camp was one of the best things he’s ever done, Dowden said.

“I was looking for a little more discipline in my life, and I wanted a challenge, and I got it,” he said. “I went down there and wanted to progress, and I did.”

Dowden, a wrestler and former football player, is a competitive person and is mentally tough, his mother said. She felt sending him to a place where he could learn organization and time management at a young age was a good thing for him, and she was right, he said.

Dowden flew to Alabama on his own and knew right away when military officials picked him up he was in a whole different atmosphere.

They buzzed his hair within 30 seconds and had him suited and dressed for hard work within minutes.

From getting up at 4 a.m. and cleaning the barracks to doing hundreds of push-ups on gravel in the blazing Alabama summer sun, Dowden was pushed beyond what most teenagers experience, and he thrived.

“I was the only kid in my group that could push through and keep my hands on the gravel and let the gravel melt into my hands,” he said. “I just did everything the way it was supposed to be done, and I made it through a lot better than a lot of other kids.”

After just a couple of days, he knew he had found something he liked to push him beyond his perceived limits.

Dowden even led many of his group events as a squad leader and faced some of his biggest fears, including learning how to repel from major heights.

All campers had to complete many physical challenges and also an academic test, and Dowden earned nearly perfect marks on both.

While Dowden doesn’t think he’ll end up in the military as a career, he’s thinking about going back to the camp to learn specific skills at designated camps in field leadership, aviation and scuba diving.

His mother already has noticed positive changes in her oldest son and said she was glad the family was able to set him on a path of making good decisions, organizing his time and figuring out ways to get the most out of his skills at a young age.

“He is mature for his age, and we knew he could do it,” she said. “What I didn’t know was he would go down there and be a squad leader.”

The summer camp is located on Camp Liberty in Battleground, Alabama, and designed after a real military boot camp to teach teens about discipline and leadership as well as to help build confidence, according to xmccamp.com.

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Kristy Deer is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3262 or kdeer@greenfieldreporter.com.