For Anthony Matthews, a 13-year-old Young Marines summer camper from Temple Hills, they were symbols of racism unlike anything he had ever seen: His mattress ripped, his military boots stolen, his wooden locker covered with racial epithets scribbled in toothpaste.
The vandalism -- the worst of three such incidents on consecutive days -- sent chills through Matthews and more than two dozen black Washington area youths in the barrack at Camp Lejeune, N.C., during a week-long military camp sponsored by the Young Marines.
Two weeks later, the humiliation is still fresh on the minds of adult leaders of the D.C. group, who said they are frustrated not only that the vandalism occurred, but also that officials running the camp did not do more to prevent it and respond to it.
The commander of the Nation's Capital Young Marines, Leonard McFerson, said he was appalled by the behavior at the military camp, which features obstacle courses, drills and other activities aimed at fostering discipline, honesty and self-esteem in boys and girls ages 8 to 18.
"I will never go back [to Camp Lejeune] for an encampment," McFerson said. "I try to get [youths] out of the city and show them something different, and if that's what they're going to see, I might as well let them run around the street and be gang members."
Soon after the rooms in the boys' barrack were damaged, McFerson said, he attended a Young Marines commanders' meeting, where he blasted his colleagues for not keeping better rein on their children.
"I said, `I'm packing my gear; I'm getting my kids out of here. I think there's racial stuff going on,' " McFerson recalled. The group stayed after getting assurances that officials would put a stop to the behavior.
Officials investigating the incidents say they suspect it may have been the work of a group of white campers from Palm Beach, Fla., but said they may never know for sure. The leader of the Florida group said his campers did not vandalize the Washington area youths' barrack, but acknowledged that one of his campers had been kicked out of the group for using foul language.
A spokesman for the U.S. Marine Corps -- which provides financial and logistical support to Young Marines but does not oversee the nonprofit group -- said yesterday that the Corps is concerned about the matter.
"Incidents like that are certainly contrary to everything we believe in," Maj. Dave Lapan said. "We support the Young Marines' taking disciplinary action against those found accountable."
The day before the racial epithets were discovered, Matthews said he had found his bed tipped over, his clothes dumped and a glass lamp broken. It appeared to be a random trashing of the barrack, the type of prank that went on throughout the camp.
The next day the Washington area boys' barrack was trashed again. This time, a picture of a camper's deceased parents was torn and scattered on the floor, money and uniforms were taken, and the smell of stale urine hung thick in the air.
"I was upset," said Matthews, an eighth-grader at Shugart Middle School. "The only rooms not trashed were those with white kids" in them.
Joseph Hall, 15, a ninth-grader at Oxon Hill High, said he couldn't believe other Young Marines would do that to them.
"It left me feeling so violated because somebody could just come into my room and do something like this," he said. "A lot of us were mad. Eventually, everybody cooled down."
Pat Shaw, an aunt of Matthews's who attended the camp with her daughter, said the camp commanders and chaperons apologized to the youths and guided them to other barracks to comfort them and keep matters under control.
"They were crying, shaking, so upset," Shaw said. "If we'd let them out, there would have been altercations. [The vandals] tore up personal pictures. Poured out medicine we had to administer to these children. . . . It was awful. I have never experienced anything like that before."
The incoming national executive director of Young Marines, Michael Kessler, saw the damage left by the last incident and launched an investigation. "What I saw wasn't teasing, and that bothers me a lot," he said.
Kessler said he was told by one young witness that the vandals were five campers from Florida who were wearing black ski masks.
"I was really perturbed at what occurred," Kessler said. "I'm very embarrassed." He said the incident was isolated and did not reflect a widespread problem in the youth program. "Every once in a while, you get a bad apple."
One of the youths suspected of being involved is being kicked out of the Florida unit, Kessler said. The youth, who is about 13, and three others allegedly involved were forced to stand guard over equipment during a beach party on the last day at camp, Kessler said.
But Tom Cullen, the commander of the Florida unit, said yesterday that his group was not responsible for the vandalism.
"I interviewed my boys," Cullen said. "They didn't do it." The Florida youth kicked out of Young Marines was punished "for having a foul mouth."
Kessler said the vandalism, and racism in general, will be discussed later this month by Young Marines board members. He said he would recommend that counselors be brought in to speak to unit commanders about race relations.
"This is too good of an organization to fall by the wayside because of something like this," Kessler said. "We're looking at ways to raise the awareness of people."
Don Matthews, a retired Air Force staff sergeant and Anthony Matthews's father, hopes that is the case.
"I didn't think anything like that would happen," said Matthews, who encouraged his son to join the group and has planned to start a Young Marines unit in Southeast Washington's Ward 8. "The Young Marines should punish the kids who did it. If they get by with this, next time they might do something worse."
The youth program, which features drug prevention classes and community service, has 9,000 members nationally and two dozen units in the District, Maryland and Virginia.