The second day of the Persian Gulf War coincided with “uniform day” for Naval Junior ROTC students at Point Loma High School. “A lot of people came up to me and said how proud they were to see me wearing the uniform,” cadet Heather Bromley said last week.
At Morse High School in Paradise Hills, with the largest Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps unit of any non-military high school in the western United States, the 234 students underwent their annual inspection from U.S. Army officers from Ft. Lewis, Wash., on the same day that hostilities began.
“A lot of students have the Persian Gulf on their minds,” said Maj. Lee Miller, who conducted the inspection and quizzed cadets on various military-related matters. The cadets at Morse know that at least a dozen 1989 graduates who were JROTC members are now on active duty in the war zone.
And at Oceanside High, some students in the junior Marine Corps ROTC program were asked by peers whether the war meant that they would soon be shipped off to fight.
The Gulf War has placed high school JROTC units in the spotlight, drawing into public view the program’s dual purpose as both a symbol of the U.S. military and as an academic enterprise for students--whether or not they go off to boot camp after graduation.
“We’re not soldiers but we are symbols of patriotism,” said Morse senior Andrew Pangelinan, who hopes to attend one of the nation’s military academies.
JROTC instructors who are retired military officers--go out of their way to stress that they are not recruiters for the armed services.
“I know that’s hard for some people to believe,” given statistics that show between 60% and 70% of students who stay in the program through their senior year eventually join a military program, said Peter Houben, head of the JROTC unit at San Diego High School.
(Many students drop out of the program between their sophomore and senior years. About 16% of the 1,200 cadets in San Diego city schools are seniors. About one-third of all cadets are women).
“But it’s true,” Houben said. “We’ll even dissuade some kids, in a kind way, from signing up for the service because we know from the (JROTC program) that they lack the maturity or self-discipline needed to be successful” in the military.
Whether with a Navy, Army or Marine Corps emphasis, the JROTC curriculum features a heavy dose of lectures and activities stressing discipline, citizenship, patriotism, leadership and teamwork, along with military drill and march.
“At first you have to get regulation haircuts and take orders from a peer or friend on how to act, how to look and what to know,” said Pangelinan, adding that many students initially have little or no idea about JROTC but take the course as a more interesting alternative to physical education.
“But after a while, you learn military tradition and history and how to march, how to project your voice, how to become a leader and be part of a team.”
Adds fellow student Matty Reyes, “It builds self-esteem and character, and shapes your values and beliefs. And it helps you manage your time and organize in other classes, too.”
Beverly Foster, assistant San Diego city schools superintendent who oversees JROTC, said, “We make a big point of saying that the curriculum can serve kids equally well whether they go into the military or not because we’ve been accused from time to time of doing active military training.
“There’s no combat training or (teaching of) military tactics. Rather, we teach things such as learning how to be somewhere on time, and how to be responsible for your behavior and actions, within a military-type curriculum.”
Foster said that at schools such as Morse, JROTC has become an “in-thing” to join, as much as or more than a sports team or cheerleading squad.
Elsewhere, such as in Oceanside, Robert Dietrich often conducts his JROTC class in English and Spanish because many of his cadets are Latino immigrants still not fluent in English.
Future military career or no, most of the JROTC cadets profess strong patriotism and strong support for U.S. troops in the Middle East.
“Some of us are scared because there are (Morse) graduates over there now,” Jennifer Dullas of Morse said. “But I’m proud to be wearing the (JROTC) uniform because now it’s even more symbolic.”
Morse senior Deanna Duchow, who wrote some of the 700 letters that Morse cadets have sent to troops in the Persian Gulf since August, said she plans to attend Humboldt State University in Arcata. “But I’m bothered that the town’s City Council vote to declare the area a sanctuary” for conscientious objectors and others opposed to the war. (The council reversed its decision Thursday night).
Christopher Mitchell of Oceanside realizes that the war “shows you that maybe it’s not so glamorous,” but still has no second thoughts about having committed himself to the Marine Corps after he finishes high school in June. The JROTC training will give him a leg up in the Marine Corps, he said.
Oceanside instructor Dietrich, who retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel this past summer, reflected both the patriotism and realistic outlook of his cadets.
While telling them of a weekend rally in Oceanside that they could attend in support of the U.S. military effort, he also showed them a graphic picture of an Army officer burying his son during the fierce World War II battle between the United States and Japan for Okinawa.
“I want them to understand that while war may (sometimes be necessary), it is not fun,” Dietrich said, “especially after the first 24 hours when the adrenaline dies down.”
Student Michelle Bynoe nodded her head. “It’s hard for us to deal with people who are anti-war,” she said. “But I hope there will be peace soon, to save more killing and not have a lot of casualties coming back.”