Thanks to the intrusion of technology and the pandemic, being a teenager in America has never been harder. Luckily, there’s an antidote – Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, more commonly known as JROTC.
JROTC is a federal high school program, with each school affiliating with a single branch of the armed forces. Unlike ROTC, the college scholarship program leading to a commission into the U.S. military, JROTC has nothing to do with recruiting. Its official purpose is to “instill in students … the values of citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment.”
But, in fact, the program does a whole lot more.
Recently I discussed JROTC with Lt. Cdr. Kevin Riley, US Navy (ret.) and Sgt. Maj. Theodus Williams, US Marines (ret.)., who teach the Navy JROTC program at Cross Keys High School in Brookhaven, and Col. Todd Powers, US Army (ret.), who teaches Army JROTC at North Springs Charter High School in Sandy Springs. I also spoke with Dr. Brittany Cunningham, Cross Keys principal, and Scott Hanson, North Springs principal.
“Our program is designed to build the character of a young person and teach them the value of respect, accountability, responsibility, leadership and teamwork,” said Riley.
All agreed and expressed immense personal satisfaction with their mission.
”Our job is to make them the best citizens we can. If we can make them a better person, so much the better,” said Powers. “North Springs has let me impact students and their lives for 13 years. I love what I do.”
Each program is totally cadet-run, with leadership positions based on their respective service command structure. In addition to functional military skills, such as weaponry and drills, the emphasis is on leadership, teamwork and community service. The cadets all have real functions and rank, including a commanding officer (Navy) or battalion commander (Army) and executive officer, who set their team’s goals for the year.
At Cross Keys, where the equipment includes rifles, swords, flags, flag belts, sword harnesses and three different styles of weapons, the cadet supply officer oversees it all.
“She handles over $500,000 worth of gear every year,” said Riley, adding the job will go on her resume.
Both programs have various competitive teams, which are a major source of pride for the cadets. The North Springs Raider Team was recently one of two area teams to qualify for the state championship. At Cross Keys, where this year’s cadets are mostly underclassmen, the cadets are so motivated their competition Drill Team went from 16th place to 6th place in just three weeks.
“They like to practice so much they often want to stay late,” said Williams. “Sometimes we say, ‘We have to go home too.’”
The main benefits to the students are lasting, transferable and deeply personal.
“The program builds the soft skills too, including a solid work ethic and attention to details,” said Cunningham. “These are transferable skills that make students poised to be successful at whatever they choose to do.”
The Army program at North Springs hosts a formal military ball every year, totally managed by the cadets including negotiating with the hotel, paid for by fundraising.
“It’s the best thing we do,” said Powers.
The instructors all agree their programs are transformational.
But what do the cadets say?
When questioned by email, many named discipline, confidence, teamwork, overcoming shyness and making friends as major benefits.
“The biggest lesson I’ve taken from Army JROTC is to always be confident in what I’m doing,” said a 3rd-year male cadet at North Springs. “The biggest surprise was how much our instructors cared about us.”
A 3rd-year female cadet at North Springs added, “I’ve learned that a leader without emotion is not a leader and teamwork comes before anything.”
Recently, the Cross Keys 2021-2022 Cadet Commanding Officer, now a freshman at Kennesaw State University, expressed her feelings about NJROTC in an unsolicited email:
“I am beyond grateful for having the opportunity to be part of an amazing program like NJROTC because of how drastically the instructors like Sergeant Major Williams and Lieutenant Commander Cole have impacted my life. Now I can look beyond the scary doors of trying something new and not be afraid of failing because I know how to get back up and give it my all … NJROTC is more than just a school program to me, it is a family, it is a place to learn, to be yourself, a place to become the person instructors see in you and the person you want to become.”
“I wish I had had this opportunity when I was in high school,” said North Springs Principal Scott Hanson.
JROTC is totally free to students and is available at many metro Atlanta high schools, mostly likely one near you.