School Climate & Safety

Among JROTC Cadets, A Rising Sense of Pride

By John Gehring — October 17, 2001 7 min read
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JROTC cadets from Lackey High School take part in American Freedom Week, sponsored by the Charles County, Md., schools.
—James Prichard/Education Week

Nearly 60 years ago, Clarence Davis survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. Last week, the former U.S. Navy radio operator sat under a clear fall sky warmed by brilliant sunshine on the football field at Westlake High School to watch hundreds of JROTC cadets march proudly in formation.

The event here drew more than 1,000 people and marked the second annual American Freedom Week, which the Charles County, Md., school board established to recognize local military veterans. Held four weeks after the terrorism at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and just two days after the United States launched a military response, this year’s ceremony recalled both the sacrifice of veterans and the loss of those who died Sept. 11, 2001, in the attacks that evoked comparisons with Dec. 7, 1941.

“The survivors of Pearl Harbor would tell young people today not to be afraid,” Mr. Davis, 77, said after the ceremony. “Our country is too great not to survive something like this. ... The JROTC program can teach young people discipline and leadership.”

As teachers and students around the country talked last week about the U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan and the prospect of a broader war against terrorism, such conversations had a particular interest for high school students in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. While those students are under no obligation for future military service, many joined the JROTC because they’re considering military careers.

‘You Can’t Be Worried’

All four major military services sponsor JROTC programs in high schools. The programs emphasize a mixture of classroom instruction and extracurricular activities such as drill and rifle teams.

Cadets, as the students are called, take JROTC as an elective course and generally wear uniforms one day a week. Retired military personnel teach students, stressing themes like citizenship, patriotism, and the study of government and military history. Nationally, about 434,000 students in some 700 schools participate in JROTC programs affiliated with either the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines.

JROTC students in Maryland’s 24,000-student Charles County district, about an hour south of Washington, say their fears of more terrorist violence here and expectations of further military campaigns abroad have not muted their patriotism or swayed their thoughts of military service.

Cadet Tashauna Nelson, above, of McDonough High School in Charles County, Md., displays a flag during an event to honor local military veterans.
—James Prichard/Education Week

Christina Walden, a senior at La Plata High School in La Plata, Md., has no reservations about her dream of attending the U.S. Air Force Academy. “This has made me want to go more,” said the 17-year-old, dressed in her formal cadet uniform. “I want to defend my country from the air.”

Fellow cadet David Alger also remains resolute about attending the Naval Academy after graduation. “There are risks involved, but if you want to go into the military, you can’t be worried,” he said. “There is a feeling that what happened has pulled the country together. ... It has changed the atmosphere in school.”

Similar notes of patriotism and service were struck at the American Freedom Week ceremony the students attended at Westlake High School on Oct. 9, which drew cadets from all five JROTC programs in Charles County schools. Among those honored were two graduates who were killed last month in the attack on the Pentagon by a hijacked plane. Both worked at the Pentagon.

“We celebrate our flag, our history, and our ideals,” James E. Richmond, the superintendent of schools in Charles County, told those assembled. “We are showing our attackers they can’t take away our pride.”

Change of Tone

Army Col. John Graham had plans to talk about communication techniques and drug abuse the morning of Sept. 11, when news broke that planes hijacked by terrorists had smashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.

“My lesson plans went down the tubes,” the JROTC instructor at Trinidad High School in Trinidad, Colo., said. “We put the television on and followed the news with the cadets.”

Beginning that day, the tone and mood of conversation among the cadets has been changed by the terrorist acts, he said. Much of the discussion has centered on the military’s role in responding to the attacks, and how agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency would use intelligence gathering to help track down leads.

“There was a lively discussion among students about whether we should attack the whole country or just those terrorists who were responsible for this,” Col. Graham said. “There was a knee-jerk reaction to get back at the people who did this, but that was tempered by the question, ‘Who do we retaliate against?’ ”

Some students, he said, were especially fearful about further terrorist attacks because of the high school’s location. Trinidad High is about 150 miles from Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy, and is not far from an Army base.

But James Kunn, an 18-year-old senior at Trinidad who is in the National Guard, said he is prepared to serve his country in battle if called upon. “I don’t like the idea of going, but I’m willing to go to help out my country,” Mr. Kunn said. “Our cadets are wearing their uniforms with a little more pride now.”

A Harris Interactive poll of teenagers taken about a week after the Sept. 11 attacks, before the U.S. airstrikes began, found that 78 percent of the boys and 61 percent of the girls responding said they would support military action. That support fell if military involvement included civilian or U.S. military casualties. (“Student Poll Asks How Schools Talked About Terrorist Assaults,” Oct. 10, 2001.)

Not all students are quick to beat the drum of patriotism in the aftermath of the attacks.

Ibn Ali, a junior at Midlothian High School in Midlothian, Va., has problems with what he sees as the hypocrisy of the United States’ foreign policy. While acknowledging the evil of the attacks and understanding the need to respond, Mr. Ali asked why it is considered patriotic, rather than a form of terrorism, when the United States attacks other countries or aids in violent activities around the globe that result in the deaths of innocent people.

He pointed to Israeli use of U.S.-provided weapons against Palestinians, the loss of civilian lives in the U.S. bombing of Iraq, and continuing sanctions against that country. Mr. Ali said the hawkish attitude of many of his fellow students, who he said were calling for bombing even before it was known who was responsible for the September attacks, had not cooled.

“I’m afraid the war will get too out of hand, and more innocent people will be killed,” Mr. Ali said. The 17-year-old junior has strong feelings about serving in a war if the draft is ever reinstated. “I don’t want to lose my life for this,” he said. “You are a tool in a war used to extract vengeance.”

Though the draft ended in 1973, federal law requires all males to register with the Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthdays. The registration requirement was suspended in 1975, but was resumed in 1980 by President Carter in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. White House and Department of Defense officials have said that at this time they are not planning to reinstate the draft.

While students and teachers involved with JROTC say the program fosters discipline and civic virtues, critics say it contributes to a worldview antithetical to peace-making and uses the guise of school to recruit students for the military.

“Our concern is that the military’s role in the schools is a role that is inappropriate,” said Harold Jordan, the coordinator for the Philadelphia-based National Youth and Militarism Program.

Awareness of the World

At the 1,600-student Forest Hill Community High School in West Palm Beach, Fla., students in the JROTC program have discussed everything from the history of the U.S. flag to the core beliefs of the world’s three major monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

“The students have become more aware of the larger world around them,” said Army Lt. Col. Larry Marksberry, who oversees what is the first year of the JROTC program at the school. The 159 students who opted to take part in the elective are an extraordinary number, even compared with long-standing programs, he said.

“Even before all of this [since Sept. 11], there must have been a more patriotic approach, especially in the homes,” Col. Marksberry said.

Most of the JROTC students in the urban high school are Hispanic. Each day, the cadets start their class by standing at attention at their desks. A recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance follows.

After the September attacks, as part of a national day of prayer and mourning, JROTC students at Forest Hill had a flag- raising ceremony at school, as they do every morning. But on that day, the entire school came together with them to pay tribute to the thousands killed by the terrorists.

Col. Marksberry said he has has been moved by the strength, curiosity, and character of his new JROTC students, many of whom have parents who were not born in the United States.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” he said. “If what I see here is what is on the horizon for our country, we will be in good shape.”

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