BIG SANDY—Fittingly, “Onward Christian Soldiers” plays over the public address system at the old Ambassador University these days.
On the campus where college students once walked, 175 young men—the Air Land Emergency Resource Team—march and train in crisis-intervention techniques. In the first 6 weeks of the 16-month program, ALERT Cadets, aged 17 to 25, go through military-like basic training.
But these soldiers are also required to memorize Scripture. “At the end, they quote the entire book of I Peter, which talks about how to endure suffering and respond cheerfully,” said Bill Gothard of the Institute in Basic Life Principles.
Since moving into their new home in March, the Cadets have served on both the local and national scene. In July the men were deployed to Wisconsin, where they helped the Dane County Sheriff’s Department conduct a search for a murder victim. Locally, Cadets have joined the Big Sandy Fire Department, cleaned up a vacant lot in town, and parked cars for the recent Gilmer Municipal Airport rededication.
The ALERT Cadets are trained as firemen and learn advanced first-aid and lifesaving techniques.
And a chorale of Cadets sang at a recent civic club meeting. “They have really been involved, helping to better the community,” said Big Sandy Mayor David P. Smith. “They’ve done more, as far as public relations, in the past six months than many organizations have done in years.”
“And they’re not just limiting themselves to Big Sandy,” Smith added. “That’s what I like about it.”
Col. Ron Fuhrman, ALERT’s commanding officer, said he was in bed with a back problem eight years ago when he started “daydreaming” about a program that would challenge young men physically and spiritually. He put it on paper, and in February 1993, IBLP approved the first group of ALERT applicants.
“There were some concerns from law enforcement agencies in the Upper Peninsula (of Michigan) when the ALERT group first organized,” said Richard Heitkemper, Sheriff of Price County, Wisconsin. “They were afraid they were a religious cult or a militia. But I can tell you they are absolutely the furthest thing from that. I believe they’re here to serve humanity.”
The ALERT program, a ministry of the Chicago-based Institute in Basic Life Principles, began in 1993 under the direction of Col. Ron Fuhrman. In 1995, the first graduating class of Cadets was ready to deploy.
Three weeks after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, officials invited a team of ALERT men to assist in the relocation of families whose homes were destroyed by the blast. They escorted the residents from the 24-story apartment building to their new homes, assisting them in boxing their belongings.
In the next five years, the men, under the leadership of Col. Fuhrman, conducted 50 search-and-rescue missions across Michigan and Wisconsin.
They have provided disaster relief to other areas across the nation and in Mexico, Venezuela, and Hurricane Mitch-ravaged Honduras.
Heitkemper has called on ALERT services twice in the past few years and recommends them highly. “I’ve never seen a group of young men so dedicated, and with such professionalism, pride, and integrity as we saw with the ALERT group,” said Richard Heitkemper, Sheriff of Price County, Wisconsin. “I wish I had a department full of the young men,” he added.
Heitkemper first called on ALERT for help after a plane crashed in his county. “I said, ‘I don’t know if you people get into this, but an airplane crashed here two weeks ago, with two people inside. My people are burned out, and I need some replacements to search.’
“They said, ‘What time tomorrow morning would you like for us to be there?’” Heitkemper said ALERT Cadets were closing in on the place when it was spotted by an aircraft overhead.
In October 1999, Heitkemper called on the ALERT Cadets again, this time to search for a murder weapon. Heitkemper said he told them he had reason to believe a pistol was thrown from a car somewhere along a 13-mile stretch of road leading away from the crime scene.
Methodically, Heitkemper said, the ALERT men combed through the dense northern Wisconsin underbrush—until 9 miles later they found a handgun embedded in about 4 feet of grass. “They located it by simply not walking past anything where they couldn’t see the ground,” he said. “They parted grass, picked up grass, and looked under grass.”
In March, the Worldwide Church of God sold the 2,200-acre Big Sandy campus to Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., which in turn leased the property to IBLP. Fuhrman said the Ambassador campus has provided much-needed space for recruits and equipment—and a much more flyer-friendly climate for getting their three aircraft airborne.
“We can maintain our own airplanes here,” said Lt. Cliff Scott, 58, a former missionary pilot and mechanic, who teaches Cadets aviation mechanics. “And we train our men with the hope that they will be excellent in their careers, working with a Christian perspective,” he added.
Scott said ALERT graduates are taught skills that will make them valuable in both ministry and the marketplace. “They may end up working for an airline or overseas as missionary pilots,” Scott said. “We’re trying to build an outlook of service to others, rather than a what’s-in-it-for-me (attitude).” Cadets may also opt to become licensed pilots through the Academy.
In Michigan, the ALERT facility could accommodate a little more than 100 people. But the old Ambassador campus meets the housing needs of 700 guests and provides a lot more hangar space for the ministry’s three rescue planes. “It’s definitely the blessing of the Lord,” Fuhrman said.
Recently, the ALERT Academy hosted a two-week family conference, which featured various Christian speakers, authors, and counselors. New ministry opportunities have also greeted the young men at their Big Sandy home.
Cadets staff the ALERT Academy’s radio station, KTAA 90.7 on the FM dial. Full-time Christian programming began the last week in October. The broadcasts consist of both Christian and classical music and conference speakers. Fuhrman said plans are also in place to produce the stories of families whose lives were changed through IBLP seminars.
One such story is of a divorced couple who attended a seminar, remarried, and had a son—who is currently serving as an ALERT Cadet. “He’s actually writing the story,” Fuhrman said.
“A resource center also recently opened on campus, with a generous offering of music, books, and gifts,” Fuhrman said.
To enter the ALERT program, men must be at least 17. They advance through three steps: 9 weeks of basic training, 16 weeks of crisis-response training, and 44 weeks of apprenticing in specialized vocations, such as flight training, aviation mechanics, and auto mechanics. “Fifty percent of the guys who start the program finish the program,” Fuhrman said.
ALERT teams deploy at the official invitation of municipalities affected by emergencies, Fuhrman said. He added they are currently available to East Texas communities needing assistance—at no charge.