The dream of a young Irish man to serve in the U.S. Army was whipped away from him in a scandalous act of lies and deceit last summer when he arrived in New Jersey to begin his military career.
Dean O’Neill, 17, from Drogheda, Co. Louth, wants to join the U.S. Army. It’s been a burning desire since he was a little boy.
“I always looked at the U.S. Army as a giant family, full of brothers and sisters who all work together,” Dean told the Irish Voice from his home last week.
Dean said he was affected by the happenings of 9/11, and although he was a young boy at the time he felt a deep calling to be part of the U.S. military.
“What happened at 9/11 really shocked and upset me and I wanted to help. I wanted to bring the people who caused this to justice. I remember giving my pocket money to our local firemen to send over to the FDNY,” said Dean.
Dean, an only child who lives with his father, James O’Neill, is in his final year of high school in Ireland. He has planned and researched his move to the U.S. to join the army for many years.
However, he kept running into the same issue – the rules state that you must be a citizen or a green card holder to join the U.S. Army.
Dean wasn’t willing to give up, though, and hope came floating his way in 2008. He found himself sitting before a Marine at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin seeking information on how to join the army.
“I was advised a military summer camp might be a positive step towards my dream,” he said.
Dean’s overwhelming desire to be part of the army family led him to a website in the U.S. advertising a cadet camp in Toms River, New Jersey -- Cedar Bridge Military Academy -- that was willing to allow him to attend a five-week military training course.
The president of the camp, Steven Baryla, promised the young Irish man he would write him a glowing reference that would bypass the entry laws, allowing Dean to serve the country he always dreamed about.
“I came cross Cedar Bridge Military Academy. It looked to be the business for me, close to New York/New Jersey and easy to fly into, so we took it from there,” he says.
The Irish teen was ecstatic. “It was like a dream come true for me,” he said.
Dean’s father James immediately contacted Baryla, the man who described himself at ex-U.S. Army member who now ran the camp.
“I believed everything this man told us,” said O’Neill.
“He told me my son would learn so much from his camp, that he himself was ex-military. He even said he could get Dean into the army without a green card. That he could write him a reference and if he wanted he could get him into West Point College,” shares O’Neill.
Baryla also said that under the “international soldiers program” Dean could qualify to be part of the army.
“This was one of his lies. It was the one that hurt me the most,” said Dean.
Dean’s father paid Baryla $3,310 for a five week course that was due to take place last summer. He was told to purchase the required uniforms himself, pay for his flights, health insurance, medical background and provide his own spending money.
Overall, O’Neill said they raised and spent close to $10,000 to send Dean to the camp.
“We had to use all our savings, plus I sold many of my own things together, like my Xbox, all my games, TV even my computer and a host of other stuff to the pay for it all,” added the young Irish man.
Late June, Dean was ready to start on the road to what hoped would be eventual induction into the U.S. Army.
He set off to New Jersey from Dublin. He spent a few days with his uncle who lives in New Jersey before he was due to begin his cadet camp. He was overly excited.
“I couldn’t wait to get started. What I always dreamed about was about to come true,” he said.
The day before Dean was due to begin his course he got a call that devastated him to the core.
The Ocean County Police Department told him the camp had been shut down and that the organizer, Baryla, was arrested on charges of distributing child pornography, impersonating a military officer and fraud.
“At first I thought it was a joke, that my father had set someone up to do it as a laugh, but when I realized it was for real I was just shocked. I was scared, heartbroken and most of all anger for being lied too. I felt betrayed,” Dean said.
Trying to come to terms with the major disappointment he was experiencing, Dean wanted to go home but he had a non-refundable flight. He stayed the five weeks with an Irish American family that was also duped by Baryla.
“Kathleen Loughran from Lakewood, New Jersey, who after all that happening with her children not getting to attend the camp took me in, gave me a bed and food to eat,” he said.
After hearing the news of what happened to Dean, the U.S. Army Cadet Academy in Millersburg contacted his father and offered Dean a place in their camp.
“It was a great offer but we would have to pay all over again, and with little to no money we just couldn’t manage it,” he said.
Baryla had been running camps for many years pretending that he was a former military officer. The Ocean County prosecutor’s office told the Irish Voice on Tuesday that Baryla’s case is still pending grand jury action. Baryla is out on bail. The camp has been shut down.
After arriving back in Ireland, with no military experience under his belt, Dean put his head down and focused on coming back to the U.S. this year to attend the cadet camp in Millersburg.
In an effort to earn enough money to come back Dean works part time in a computer store, earning about $40 a shift. His father is a stay at home dad.
When asked if he ever thought about joining the Irish Army he said he did, but he doesn’t see the point.
“You learn all the solider skills but you would rarely get to use them. You don't get adventure, skills or get to see the world like you would in the U.S. Army,” Dean said.
Looking ahead to the future, Dean is hoping to start college in the New Mexico Military Institute in the next year or two, but finances are a big issue. Although he is working as much as he can in between his studies, the cost of a year’s study in the college in close to $20,000 according to Dean.
“I got my cadet enrolment number in the mail the other day. It seems like paradise, but it’s going to cost the earth. It’s looking a bit doubtful,” he says.
“I’ll not be able go as there is no way we can get the money that’s needed. My father and I will have to put our heads together on this one to find the finances.”
After the heartache and overwhelming disappointment at the turn of events last summer, Dean has secured a five-week placement in the military cadet camp in Kentucky this summer beginning in June.
“I’m just hoping it will be all smooth sailing this year and I will finally get to start my military career,” he hopes.
By attending the cadet camp and hopefully securing a place in the New Mexico Military Institute, Dean feels it will give him a leg up on the ladder of joining the Army. The rules are still the same, but Dean has recently discovered a potential way around it.
“I’ve just found out about the MAVNI project,” he said.
The MAVNI program allows certain non-citizens who are legally present in the U.S. for two years to join the U.S. military and apply immediately for citizenship without first obtaining a green card.
“So if I can do maybe two years in New Mexico Military Institute then I may well qualify for MAVNI,” he said.
Dean, who is currently preparing for his final year exams, is not afraid of the deathly consequences that may arise from a career in the army.
“I was asked many times, ‘If you get in what if you die?’ I always answer with the same answer -- I would rather my military funeral than another 9/11,” he said.
“I want to help defend America from something as brutal as that and try stopping it from ever happing again. I’m not frightened.”
“At times I feel like giving up, because it is hard, but in the end it will all be worth it if this works out for me. At the moment I won't let it defeat me because as my father always taught me defeat isn't falling down, defeat is not trying to get up again. So every time I fall down, I will keep getting back up.”