He wasn't born on the wrong side of the tracks or raised in an abusive home, but Sparky Edwards still wound up running with the wrong crowd and heading for a future that would more than likely include prison.
Instead, however, the 17-year-old entered the Thunderbird Youth Academy, one of 35 academies across the United States sponsored by the National Guard Youth Foundation. There, in a military-structured setting in Pryor Creek, Okla., Edwards said he was given the tools he needed to succeed in life.
Recognizing how he has successfully put those tools to work throughout his career, the National Guard Youth Foundation has invited Edwards to attend its 25-year anniversary celebration in February as a distinguished graduate among more than 10,000 who have successfully completed the program.
Edwards is the Director for the Intelligence, Protection and Nuclear Security Directorate at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. He is also a Task Force Officer on the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in New Mexico.
The invitation comes as no surprise to Glen Adams, the Chief of Staff at White Sands Missile Range who works with Edwards on a daily basis.
"Sparky is one of those people that you can rely on to get the job done, no matter how large the task," said Adams. "He will roll up his sleeves, dive deep into the issues with his team, and find creative solutions that inspires the entire team to resolve the task. Sparky has an inner drive to make things better. No matter where he looks, he tries to help fix things that aren't working right."
But before arriving at White Sands, the 35-year-old had amassed a career that includes the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for combat in Iraq as a Senior Intelligence Officer, serving as Senior Lead Special Security Agent in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, creating three businesses, and serving as the nation's youngest Federal Police Chief as a 31-year-old in Kansas for Topeka and Leavenworth. While there, he received the Heroism Medal for disarming a knife-wielding man in a close-quarters struggle involving five trapped bystanders.
But highlighted on his resume is the time Edwards has devoted to the National Guard Youth Foundation mentoring at-risk youth, raising funds for state programs such the Thunderbird Youth Academy, and being available to the hundreds of parents who contact him for advice before, during and after their son or daughter enters the program.
Volunteer mentors and organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America are critical to the program, Edwards said, because they help connect the dots for at-risk youth – many who are from broken homes with little or no parental support.
But that wasn't the case with Edwards, who said his mom, a schoolteacher, helped him find the first dot by suggesting the Thunderbird Youth Academy. It was a huge step for Edwards who had been arrested for theft, burglary and breaking into cars, and finally being expelled from school for threatening another male student for bullying his little sister.
"I wanted to stop her pain and try something different," said Edwards, who voluntarily entered the Thunderbird Youth Academy where his 22-week stay began with "hell week" along with about 140 fellow applicants.
Edwards said the academy was twice as difficult as Army basic training in his opinion. Only about 72 applicants finished the rigid introduction and graduated, but Edwards said he embraced the military structure.
The focus of the cadre, which Edwards said was primarily Army National Guardsmen, was to give them the tools to succeed in life by instilling a sense of self-discipline and community spirit using a variety of methods built around eight core objectives: academic excellence, life coping skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, service to the community, leadership/followership, and physical fitness.
Edwards joined the Army while still at the academy, but chose not to return home before leaving for basic training. The academy had provided him the tools for success, but Edwards said he was still the same person inside and wanted to avoid returning home and seeking out old friends.
"Otherwise, I would have gone straight back to that world I was in," said Edwards.
After basic training, Edwards reported for duty as an artilleryman to Camp Stanley in South Korea. Edwards said he got off to a rocky start, but after about 18 months things started to click for him when he began pulling a few tools out of the "tool belt" of life skills he had been provided with at the academy.
"I began to see how enjoyable life can be when you do the right things."
From Korea, Edwards returned to the United States and spent eight more years in the Army. During that time he deployed to Iraq where his military career came to an end from injuries sustained from an IED blast. But Edwards continued utilizing his tool belt to achieve a bachelor's degree in criminal intelligence and then later two master's degrees in business and defense management.
"I can never change my passion for not liking school but I changed my passion for understanding the need for it, setting goals and achieving them," said Edwards.
Edwards has enjoyed career success both in the military, civil service and private industry, but he never forgets that his dots of success lead back to the Thunderbird Youth Academy, a life-changing event made possible through National Guard Youth Foundation.
"I consider myself successful, but it all came from those tools I got at the academy," said Edwards, and he continues to spread the word as an advocate to help others have the same opportunity.
"What I'm really trying to do is show them that this program can take you from the worst place and the worst situation you are in as an at-risk teen and give you all the tools you need to be successful. I mean, I went from being placed in handcuffs at 17 years old to placing handcuffs on criminals only 14 years later as a 31-year-old police chief."