Lafayette, Ind., is not a place most people think of as a Navy town.
It is an hour and a half south from the nearest sizable body of water, Lake Michigan, and best known in military circles as the home of Purdue University and Saab's jet engine research labs.
When Naval Sea Cadet Corps Lt. j.g. Amy Corbin set out to start a new division of the Sea Cadets in Lafayette, she knew she would need some help and Lafayette Local 668 didn't let her down.
The Sea Cadets is, basically, the Navy's junior ROTC for young people aged 10-18. There are more than 400 divisions with more than 13,000 participants across the U.S.
In 2020, Corbin wanted to start a program in her hometown, Lafayette, and name it after the submarine tender USS Dixon in honor of her father, Petty Officer Dean Cavin, who is a plank owner of the USS Dixon, meaning he was on the crew that first commissioned the ship in 1971. Her goal was to start the Lafayette Dixon Division in time for the 50th anniversary of the ship's launch.
The Dixon also met Corbin's interest in the skilled trades. Corbin's husband and son are union sheetmetal workers and, after falling in love with automotive electrical work, Corbin applied for the Lafayette Local 668 apprenticeship, but family obligations stood in the way.
"I like to do everything, but can't," she said. "But I like unions and I like the skilled trades and I wanted a skilled trade ship. The seamen on the Dixon went in and out of submarines and fixed everything."
Unfortunately for Corbin, after she had recruited a handful of young men and women, they had a single drill and the pandemic hit. She had to shut down all in-person programs and the virtual meetings just didn't work, she said.
Then, her primary sponsor, the Navy Club of Lafayette, was shuttered to protect its primarily older membership.
Two years earlier, when she started her first division in Indianapolis, she went to Local 668 for help and the response was an immediate vote to send financial support. She even convinced journeyman inside wiremen Sam Howie and Brenten Green to make the three-hour roundtrip to teach. Howie was the self-defense and physical fitness instructor and Green taught basic electrical theory.
When Corbin needed help setting up a division in Local 668's backyard, she came back, and again, found a friendly audience. In April of 2021 she attended a general meeting, waited until the end of regular business and made her pitch.
The kids need a complete sea bag, which includes four uniforms — two work, a dress white and a dress blues — boots and shoes. They are used uniforms, requisitioned from the U.S. Navy stockpile of equipment returned by seamen leaving the service but they aren't free and the kids are always growing, so she didn't just need four, she needed four in near every youth size for every cadet. Then, of course, there is the money to feed them during drills and gas to get them to trainings, first aid kits, all the camping supplies.
"There is a lot of gear," Corbin said. "Like Boy Scouts but a lot more."
The 668 membership voted to send financial support again.
"I think it was near unanimous," said Local 668 Business Manager Larry Spencer. "It's a great program and Amy is so enthusiastic about unions and her cadets."
It meant the world to them, Corbin said, in ways that might not be visible to civilians.
Corbin said they go to boot camp as part of the basic military education program. And although the drill sergeants cannot touch the kids or use curse words, the experience at Camp Dodge in Iowa is otherwise authentic.
"It is tough there. They are not the nicest people. They do a lot of yelling," Corbin said.
And, well, an incomplete sea bag is a very quick way to get the attention of the drill sergeant. Even civilians know that is exactly not what you want to be doing.
That, she soon found out, was just the start of the local's support.
A central focus of the Sea Cadet program is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and one of the projects the cadets had to work on this year was building a submersible robot. A key component of the project was soldering circuit boards, which required the cadets to know how to use meters to test their work.
"The Navy loves STEM and IBEW hits hard on it," she said.
Corbin reached out to Green again and he readily agreed to pitch in.
But as the day approached in January, he came down with COVID.
"I asked my Assistant Business Agent Jeremie Pearson to find a replacement. He volunteered and enlisted two others to help," said Spencer said.
Pearson, Organizer Corey Bassett, who is also the Local's RENEW chapter president, and fifth-year apprentice Aaron Cartron assisted the cadets in getting their circuit boards built and soldered.
"We dive them into pools and run them through an obstacle course. They taught the cadets how to use the tools and the meter, and Aaron sat with each kid to teach them to solder their circuit boards," Corbin said.
Corbin said this is also a chance for the cadets to learn about unions. Although more than 1 in 10 students at the Naval Academy are former Sea Cadets and many others choose to enlist, hearing about life in the union trades is an important opportunity for the ones who choose not to.
"Some get all the military experience and think they will enlist, and they don't, and unions are a great plan if they don't," Corbin said. "We had one kid say, 'I can join this? They will pay for me to get a trade, and I don't have to go to college?' It opened their eyes to what is possible and that is what I want for all of them no matter what they do."
And that appreciation means a great deal to Spencer.
"We've worked with many community groups over the years, all good causes. I wish everyone was as zealous as Amy making our members feel appreciated for the work they do in our community," Spencer said. "She knows what it is all about.”