Small Soldiers

August 01, 1998 3 min read

At first glance, the camouflage-clad troop appears no different from enlisted soldiers. Its members march in formation without complaint under a smoldering Alabama sun. They pivot right, then left, then right again on the order of their commanding officer. But when the officer halts the marching exercise to buckle the sagging pants of one of his troop members, it’s clear these cadets won’t be serving in battle anytime soon. They’re bound for middle school instead.

“Hopefully, they have some discipline now that they didn’t have before,” says Lt. Michael Buck, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves who helps lead the ROTC-style club at Terry Heights Elementary School in Huntsville.

The club is believed to be the only elementary school ROTC program of its kind in the nation. Eighteen 5th graders drill for an hour each week, and another dozen students--both 4th graders and 5th graders--join them for tutoring sessions. Unlike Junior ROTC programs in high school, the group is not an official, government-sponsored military program. It’s meant simply to provide the youngsters--both boys and girls--with the extra confidence and academic know-how they’ll need to face 6th grade.

Inner-city kids like these often get more negative than positive attention. “This small group we’re working with, they’re getting positive attention,” says Sgt. Maj. Theodore Tyson, who works in the Army ROTC program at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University and runs the Terry Heights club with the help of several of his cadets.

Giving the boys and girls such attention is exactly what Terry Heights special education teacher Janice Summerhill had in mind when she began the program in 1996. Realizing that many of the students at the predominantly black, working class school were being raised by single mothers, Summerhill became concerned that the principal was the only man on staff. “I asked myself, What can we do for these babies?” Summerhill recalls. “It was a struggle that we didn’t have another male person here. The children were fatherless, and there were discipline problems.”

At the suggestion of a friend, Summerhill cornered Sgt. Tyson at a concession stand before an Alabama A&M football game and dared him to be part of the solution. A career military man always ready for a challenge, Tyson rounded up the troops.

By law, an elementary school cannot have an official Junior ROTC chapter. Federal funds go only to programs for students who have completed the 8th grade. “It’s a case of putting the money where it’s most appropriate,” says Jack Muhlenbeck, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Cadet Command, which operates Army ROTC programs.

Of course, not everyone thinks military drills are a good idea for grade schoolers, even when it’s unofficial. After a story describing the Terry Heights program appeared in a local newspaper, a few residents wrote letters questioning the wisdom of exposing students to military lessons at such an age.

But the group’s sponsors emphasize that they aren’t teaching the students anything more warlike than what they would learn in a marching band.

“They will never see a weapon,” Tyson says. “We will never teach them military tactics. We’re using military techniques to teach them discipline.”

The youngsters come a long way over the course of a school year, he says. Some enter the program in the fall not knowing right from left. They also learn valuable lessons about listening and patience.

Tyson hopes to see the program expand. “Why would you wait until high school to start an ROTC program?” he asks. “You start early, and it’s instilled.”

--Jessica L. Sandham