Veterans help send youth shooters to college (VIDEO)

The program not only provides shooting and safety skills, but confidence and a possible means to attend college. (Photo: NBC)

The program not only provides shooting and safety skills, but confidence and a possible means to attend college. (Photo: NBC)

A unique program in Sevierville, Tennessee, pairs military veterans with youngsters to teach them shooting skills while aiming to give them a means to go to college.

The idea for the Junior Youth Air Rifle Program began to form about a year ago, Les Piniak of American Legion Post 104 told a local NBC affiliate. The program teaches kids – male and female – ages 12 to 16 valuable skills and gives local veterans an opportunity to share their expertise with the youth.

Piniak, who is an Army veteran and former police officer, also jokingly said working with the kids helps the veterans to feel young again. He said it gives them something to do while giving back to the community through education.

Training starts in the classroom and, above all else, focuses on safety.

“Knowing that if I could teach a child how to deal with weapons and deal with the gun safety part of it, there’s a good strong possibility we are going to save a life,” Piniak said.

Following classroom instruction, the kids move to the range to practice the lessons they’ve learned, and according to Piniak, the kids show some promising skills.

“The kids are good, I mean they are really good,” Piniak said. “They would probably put me to shame.”

As with anything else, practice makes perfect and the kids don’t always start out on-target, but they get better.

“First time I shot it wasn’t too good,” said 13-year-old Bryce Gwathney. “But then I started to improve and did really good.”

Gwathney said they get a great sense of gratification when they’re able to hit the bulls-eye. Piniak said their instructors, in turn, feel an enormous sense of accomplishment when the students hit the center mark.

But the program is about much more than just learning to shoot. Adjutant David Howard said it’s a way for the kids to build “confidence in themselves and where they started and where they end.”

The veterans also hope the program will provide an opportunity for the teens to attend college.

“This is why we are doing it,” Howard said. “Mainly to get these kids to college.”

College shooting programs nationwide actively seek participants and oftentimes provide scholarships. Instructors from the youth program hope that the skills the teens learn will ultimately provide them with a means for higher education.