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Assistant US defense secretary visits Camp Dawson

Exponent Telegram photo by Theresa Marthey Assistant Secretary of Defense Todd Weiler, center, takes the opportunity to talk to Mountaineer Challenge Academy cadets and their teacher Jessie Uphold during his visit to the academy on Tuesday.
Exponent Telegram photo by Theresa Marthey
Assistant Secretary of Defense Todd Weiler, center, takes the opportunity to talk to Mountaineer Challenge Academy cadets and their teacher Jessie Uphold during his visit to the academy on Tuesday.

KINGWOOD, W.Va. — The Mountaineer Challenge Academy showed off their high tunnels to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) Todd Weiler on Tuesday at Camp Dawson in Kingwood.

Weiler was visiting the site to talk about the academy’s agriculture program, and the importance of their cooperation.

“What is happening here is exemplary,” Weiler said. “I want to take the lessons they are teaching here across the country, and share some best practices.”

“These young people are learning how to grow vegetables, make money at growing food or just growing food for their own family,” Weiler said. “This is an important aspect of this program. The program is giving kids a hand up, giving them an opportunity to get their high school diploma.”

Mountaineer Challenge Academy Director Kathy Tasker said the agriculture program started out as a community service project.

“Our cadets actually took down a smaller high tunnel for a community group,” Tasker said. “We thought it might be a good idea to bring it to the academy, and they told us to take it and that is how we started this program.”

Since that first high tunnel went up, the academy received $10,000 from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and its commissioner, Walt Helmick, to put the two additional tunnels up.

The cadets manually adjust the temperatures in the tunnels by opening and closing the plastic covers and manually water the crops that are grown.

“It is a labor intensive project,” Tasker said. “But the students are providing the vegetables on our salad bar.”

Tasker said one day this summer, the cadets harvested 149 pounds of tomatoes from the tunnels, and the MCA uses approximately 75 pounds a week.

“They are having fresh foods,” Tasker said. “At this point, with our partnerships throughout Preston County for food and what we grow, our costs to serve cadets is under $20 per day per cadet.”

Weiler also had the opportunity to met with four of the academy’s cadets in the agriculture program, and asked them why they liked the program.

“Agriculture was my second choice here,” Cadet P. Miller of Berkley told Weiler. “I am grateful that I got into the program. It is a stress reliever when planting. It helps me to relax and just think about things.”

Weiler said part of his responsibilities, as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Assets is to look at ways to keep the older facilities around the country.

“As the guard across the country looks to close some of its older facilities, we are looking at ways that we can stay engaged with the community, and keeping those facilities vital to communities,” Weiler said. “What West Virginia is doing here is very important. I am hoping to take these concepts to other states.”

Weiler pointed to innovation and the connection that it has in West Virginia.

“In D.C., sometimes we don’t think about talking to the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the things you do here,” Weiler said. “You live this, and the National Guard was able to bring together partnerships to reclaim lands giving veterans and those transition out of the military to learn a new skill.”

“It is absolutely critical to share ideas,” Weiler said.

Weiler also visited the Patriot Guardens in Welch, McDowell County, where the National Guard Armory set up two high tunnels housing hydro/aquaponic systems.

 Staff Writer Theresa Marthey can be reached at (304) 276-1127 or by email at [email protected].

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