I found discipline and support in JROTC—but not my future.
In 10th grade, I joined the Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a military program, mainly because I liked the JROTC uniform. I thought I would look so cute in the dark blue jacket and pants, black Oxford shoes and shiny insignia.
But I also joined because JROTC was one of the programs in my high school that really stood out as something special.
Tough to Learn at Lane
I’m not proud of the fact that my high school, Franklin K. Lane, had the city’s third worst graduation rate (only 27.5% of my freshman class graduated) or that it had three times the city’s average of major crimes.
When I started at Lane, I was shocked to see some students cursing out the teacher or talking loudly to their friends, playing cards or walking around when the teacher was talking. And some kids just walked out of class.
Outside the classroom, you had to survive the bullies in the hallways, the stupid fights, the crowded staircases and seeing so many kids wasting their time smoking outside the school. You had to have stamina to make it through that school.
But even though there was a lot of bad at Lane, there were some positive standouts, like its nationally recognized debate team, and the law program, which held mock trials at the Queens Supreme Courthouse. I also had some good classes, and some teachers who really cared about their students, even when the students didn’t seem to care about school.
Another standout was the JROTC program.
Happy to Have Discipline
When I walked into a JROTC class, the most shocking thing was the lack of noise. Here were regular Lane students standing at their desks, with their textbooks and pencils placed neatly in front of them.
Before class started, we’d stand at parade rest (standing firmly with feet shoulders-width apart, hands tucked behind our backs and eyes looking straight forward), waiting for the late bell to ring. When it did, the class leader, an older student, would call the roll, and when the cadet heard her name, she’d go to attention, then respond, “Sir, here, sir” or “Ma’am, here, ma’am.”
It made me happy to be in a place with so much discipline, after the lack of discipline I usually saw all around me.
JROTC class met every day just like any other class. We learned all kinds of things, like the history of flight, the aerospace jobs in the military, how to buy a house and apply for college, how to handle stress, how to administer first aid, and how to survive in the woods. My cousin, who was also a Lane student in JROTC, and I even built a tent in the park for a JROTC assignment.
Became a Leader
We also did a lot of public speaking in JROTC class, which helped me with my confidence. In my senior year, I became the class leader. This responsibility for my peers’ conduct made me feel important, as did teaching drill to other students. Those of us who chose to be on drill team would meet for practice three or four days a week after school.
The tough background I come from has pushed me to succeed so that my life could be different. (For much of my life I lived with an alcoholic father who made me miserable.) But a lot of people in my school with similar backgrounds didn’t push themselves as hard and instead became troublemakers.
Some of those troublemakers joined JROTC. But after a year or so of the program, many of the kids who stuck with it began to change their lives around.
Like a Dad
Chief and Captain were our instructors. Like many of the students in my school, both spoke Spanish, and that made it easier for students to connect with them. They told us about their struggles growing up poor and what they had now, like a happy family, a house, car and money. These men had faced life and death experiences in combat in the Vietnam and Korean Wars, so we had respect for them.
I grew particularly close to Chief, who came to this country when he was 10 from Cuba. (I moved to this country from St. Lucia when I was 14, so we could understand each other’s experiences.)
One time my good friend talked about me behind my back and I felt betrayed. I went straight to Chief. Whenever I had a problem at home or I was depressed about a boy, he’d make me feel happy. He was one of those teachers who saw something in you that you had never seen in yourself. Because I didn’t have a dad around, I sometimes wished that Chief was my father.
No Easy Way Out
Even though I had so many great experiences in JROTC, by the middle of my junior year, I was beginning to get a little tired of all the rigid discipline—like having to say “Sir” or “Ma’am” to anyone with a higher rank than me, and keeping my uniform dust-free and my shoes so shiny you could see your face in them. I also developed other interests, like working on my school newspaper.
By senior year, I made up my mind without much hesitation that life in the military was not the path for me. I wanted to go to college right after high school and become a businesswoman or a newspaper reporter. Besides, I didn’t want to go to any dangerous places the military might send me.
But I also knew that I wouldn’t have an easy way out of signing up for Senior ROTC or going directly into the military. Since JROTC is a military program, recruiters are always knocking at JROTC’s door looking for future soldiers.
About four or five recruiters came regularly to our school, and as soon as senior year rolled around, they were popping up every week trying to talk to me. My JROTC instructors also pressured me to enlist in the armed forces. When I told Chief I didn’t want to join, he was cross with me.
But I wanted to choose my path instead of following the one they had planned out for me. I knew I wasn’t interested in living a rigid and disciplined life.
Ready for War
And during that year, some of the people I knew who had joined the military got sent to Iraq, like Claudio, who was what you could call a ladies’ man. At Christmastime he’d throw a huge party at his father’s pizzeria. He joined the Air Force and was in Iraq.
Or Luis, the commander who taught me basic military drill. He was very energetic and outgoing, and he was passionate about JROTC and the military life. After he graduated, he joined the Marines.
I got to see some pictures of Luis and his comrades when they were in Iraq. He looked very excited but at the same time scared. They looked ready for war, holding their M-16s in the air and wearing brown BDUs (battle dress uniform).
There was also my good friend’s cousin Aneka, who signed up for the Army soon after she graduated from Lane’s JROTC program. When my friend interviewed her for our school paper, Aneka talked about the terrible heat, meeting Iraqi civilians and learning to be thankful for everything she has. She also described how she almost got blown up by a type of bomb called an IED.
Recruiter Glosses Over Iraq
Even with all the recruiters in my school, not that many Lane students join the military. Out of the 3,500 students at Lane when I was there, 250 enrolled in the JROTC program. Of those, only about 13 seniors graduated from the program with me in 2004, and four or five seniors joined the military.
Still, over time, the numbers add up. When I organized a Memorial Day service for my high school, I found that 34 Lane students had joined the military in the last four or five years. And for some reason, all the ones I know about have either been to Iraq or are there now.
But the topic of the dangers of the war in Iraq, and whether I would have to go to Iraq if I enlisted, would only make its way into our conversation if I asked the recruiter about it. He’d focus on the fact that, because I’m female, I wouldn’t be in combat. He’d also tell me that the Army isn’t all about going to Iraq. Then he’d try to quickly answer my questions and move on to persuade me with all the positive aspects of enlisting.
Looking back, a piece of me feels that it’s great that JROTC was placed in a failing school like Lane. By teaching honesty, respect, discipline and patriotism, JROTC helps students who have given up hope. I think some kids would have dropped out of high school if they hadn’t joined JROTC.
And some of the kids I know needed the military to help them get their lives together. They needed the kind of discipline and strictness that only the military can provide. Some of them might really benefit from continuing in the military.
Give Us More Than JROTC
But it also bothers me that JROTC was one of the few positive experiences some of my fellow students were offered in high school. I wish other people—like businesspeople and other professionals—gave us the kind of support that Chief did and recruited us when we left school.
Sometimes I feel like the kids who joined the military from JROTC—especially the ones who didn’t do that well in class and didn’t feel confident about going to college straight out of high school—are being cheated out of a normal civilian life.
Although some of these students weren’t at the top of their class, they were “street smart.” They had sense when it came to money since most of them had part-time jobs. They were popular in school and were natural born leaders (while I’m more “book smart”). Maybe those strengths could have been pushed in a direction other than the military.
Offer That’s Hard to Resist
When we leave high school, many of us are afraid of venturing out on our own. How sure are we that we can find the best options for ourselves and make something good of them?
When we feel unsure of our futures, the military is right there in our faces, telling us that if we just work hard, we will succeed, offering us money, college (all expenses paid), a job, free travel, free room and board. For many, it’s an offer they can’t resist.
The military has continued to be right in my face. Even now, several months after I’ve graduated high school, one recruiter still calls my house at least once a week and tries to make conversation with me about my summer and my life.
Sometimes the conversation goes on for quite a while since I love to talk about myself. Generally, the recruiter no longer asks me anything about signing up because if he does, he knows I’ll stop talking to him. But when he does mention enlisting, I make it clear to him that I’m NOT interested in military life.
Sometimes when I tell him that, he says to give him a call when I can’t pay for college any longer. I don’t like that he’s suggesting that, without the military, I won’t succeed.
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