Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Sure they get to wear uniforms and sometimes carry weapons, but students do not join the Junior Reserve Office Training Corps to play soldier.
They join because JROTC is a respected activity at their schools, one that teaches life skills. And they join because it is fun.
“I thought it was all about doing pushups and wearing a uniform,” said Megan Haley, president of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe’s Class of 2012. “But it is definitely about leadership.”
Some students find the camaraderie so compelling that they choose to continue, either by enlisting in the military or enrolling in a college-level ROTC unit. Haley herself is considering enrolling in ROTC, either Air Force or Army, when she begins classes at Georgia Tech in the fall.
But channeling students toward a military career is not the mission of the retired commissioned and non-commissioned officers, now employees of the local school systems, who oversee JROTC programs.
“There is a clear distinction between JROTC and ROTC,” said Lt. Col. Paul Harwart, senior instructor at LFO. “Senior ROTC prepares officers for the military. Our mission in JROTC is to create better citizens.”
Though scheduling conflicts allowed Haley to participate for just three semesters, this Horatio Alger Scholarship recipient, track and tennis teams member and homecoming queen candidate said she remains enthusiastic about the program and how it helped her blossom.
“I was the kid in middle school who wore glasses and sat in the corner and read a book,” she said. “This helps with balance. It is a family environment — not cliquey — that is very welcoming. I miss it.”
Similar accounts can be heard throughout Northwest Georgia, where every high school in Catoosa and Walker counties offers these programs designed to train boys and girls to become better citizens.
Instructors are retired members of the military. Though half their salary is provided by the Department of Defense, JROTC instructors are employees of the local school system.
In Walker County, Ridgeland High School partners with the Air Force while LaFayette High School operates a program affiliated with the Army. Only Chickmauga’s Gordon-Lee, because of its small enrollment, does not offer an armed forces affiliated program.
Catoosa County has Army JROTC units at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and at Ringgold high schools. Heritage, the county’s newest high school, has yet to add its own JROTC program but its students can participate in the programs at either LFO or Ringgold.
Similarly, Performance Learning Center — with an enrollment smaller than necessary to qualify for its own program — busses students to LFO so they are not denied access to JROTC.
Nina Crawford, administrative secretary for the battalions at LFO and Ringgold, described JROTC as “a student-led program; the instructors guide them but [cadets] do the work and learn life lessons.”
Whatever their unit’s size or affiliation, instructors with all the area’s JROTC programs stress that their mission is to motivate young people to become better citizens.
“We are not recruiters,” said Lt. Col. Steve Hammerstone, who before coming to LaFayette High seven years ago had served 22 years in the Army. “Our goal is to graduate our kids. Personally, if I could get every kid to graduate in four years and get them to go on with their education, I’d prefer that to them continuing their career in the military.”
JROTC is part of the career path curriculum that, as an elective course, commingles students of different ages and grades. For many, it provides opportunities to develop as both a student and young adult.
Cadet Staff Sgt. Cheyenne Burns, a 16-year-old sophomore at LFO, said competitive athleticism and the program’s teaching of leadership skills attracted her to JROTC. Though important, she has found other aspects even more appealing, she said.
“What I like most is that we’re just one big family — we’re closer than on an athletic team. These are like my brothers and sisters,” said Burns, who plays softball, runs track and competes with the JROTC Raiders. “We don’t leave someone if they’re down, we pick them up.”
For someone who described herself as being naturally shy and self-conscious, Burns said this year, her first as part of the JROTC “family,” has taught her to “be myself and not care what others think about me.”
Though graduation is several years away, she is already thinking about college and a career in the Army.
Cadet Lt. Col. Dusty Jackman, 17, a senior at LFO, has followed s similar path during his high school years.
“When I came as a freshman I was into art but friends kept telling me about RO,” he said. “I had hair down to my shoulders, was shy and scared of girls but liked the idea of the rifle team.”
He tried it, liked it, excelled at it and is today the LFO JROTC battalion commander. He has also enlisted and will join the Army Air Cavalry after graduation.
For instructors, and the various branches of the armed forces, the fact that some students enjoy JROTC so much that they decide to continue with ROTC or a military career is a lagniappe.
Ridgeland’s program, one of the few Air Force JROTC programs in this area, was authorized in 1980 at Rossville High. When that school and Chattanooga Valley High merged in 1989, the program continued, according to Lt. Col. Paul Simpson.
In his 15 years as senior instructor at Ridgeland, Simpson said the misconception persists that cadets have to enlist in the military if they participate in the program. That notion is absolutely wrong, he said.
“Cadets learn survival skills that are applicable to everyday life,” Simpson said. “Some will try it, not like it and leave; some find they like and stay for four years; some are gung-ho for a couple of years but then move on to something else. Our biggest goal [for cadets] remains the same: keeping grades up and graduating.”