A touch of discipline
By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
Can you name the largest, most popular student activity in Pasco County high schools?
Think color guards. Think push-ups.
Believe it. No activity group pulls in more kids across Pasco than the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
"I've got the biggest program on campus," said Mike Weaver, commander of Mitchell High School's 160-student Navy J-ROTC unit. "And most people have no idea what it is we're doing."
Weaver said most people think ROTC died with the draft, or is relegated to colleges and universities. Not so. In fact, nationwide, high school J-ROTC is bigger than ever.
Some 450,000 high school students are involved in 2,900 J-ROTC programs, according to the Department of Defense. This year, Congress removed the limits on the number of programs the Department of Defense can operate. It's now pushing to open nearly 700 new "units" by 2006.
About 850 cadets are active in Pasco ROTC, more than the number of kids involved in football or marching band. The cadets help clean neighborhoods. They direct traffic at football games. They present the colors at athletic events and Devil Rays games. They volunteer with local veterans groups. They learn survival skills, citizenship and military history. They study government, the Constitution and meteorology. They square off in track and field meets, marksmanship contests and drill team competitions.
Cadet Danny Huffman, company commander of Zephyrhills High School's Bravo Company, said that's a lot more than most kids do.
"I think ROTC is a much better way to spend your time than running the streets," said Huffman, 18. "To them, all we do is push-ups, sit-ups and get yelled at."
Zephyrhills Principal Jim Davis likes the ROTC so much that he wishes he could make the program mandatory for all incoming ninth-graders.
"Football usually gets the biggest and the fastest, and to be in band you've got to be musically inclined," Davis said. "But ROTC gives kids of all walks the opportunity to learn leadership, discipline and time management. They have a real sense of pride in what they're doing."
J-ROTC has detractors. Critics say it's a recruiting tool for the military. Public education shouldn't be a vehicle for creating soldiers, they argue. Groups such as the American Friends Service Committee and a pacifist group called Catholic Worker have opposed ROTC for years.
Cadets can't understand why.
"I'm a lot more organized than I used to be," Huffman said. "I'm a lot more disciplined. I've learned a lot about respect and manners, and I've made a lot of great friends."
Said Mitchell cadet William Dailey: "I did it for more self-respect and to learn basic values. It's helped my (grades) and helped my self-esteem."
Every branch of the armed forces has at least one J-ROTC unit in Pasco. Only Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel high schools don't have a J-ROTC unit, although Wesley Chapel is trying to get one. Land O'Lakes is too crowded to meet the classroom space requirements mandated for J-ROTC by the Department of Defense.
The department supplies uniforms, computers, textbooks, televisions and DVD players for the J-ROTC class, which meets daily and counts as a science credit.
The Pentagon helps pay the district's J-ROTC instructors, all of whom are retired military officers.
"People think they're drill sergeants, but nothing could be further from the truth," said Huffman, who has already been through the Army basic training and is a member of the National Guard.
"They're teachers just like any other."
Last year, the faculty at Zephyrhills picked Lt. Col. Michael Pilvinsky as the school's Teacher of the Year.
"To me, that validates that we are an important part of this school," Pilvinsky said. "The secret to success in ROTC is teamwork. A lot of the kids here never belonged to anything before. And we insist on good conduct in class."
The programs receive only a few hundred dollars a year from their schools for activities like field trips and drill meets.
Like other student groups, J-ROTC units have booster clubs of parents that help raise money with car washes, candy sales and other money-makers.
At Mitchell, the cadets stand at attention until their commander gives them permission to sit.
"We're teaching them to respect each other and to be accountable and responsible," said Mitchell High's Cmdr. Weaver, a Gulf War veteran.
"It isn't about marching and isn't about rifles. Those are just the tools we use to get them there."
Said Maureen Hugel, a cadet at Gulf High: "If I wasn't in ROTC, I'd be just another punk. We're a team, we don't pick on each other. There are no cliques."
Hugel represents an interesting side of ROTC: the girls. Nearly half of Pasco's cadets are female.
Some join because J-ROTC is viewed as the domain of boys, and they relish pushing boundaries. Others like the physical training or plan to enlist in the military after graduation.
Mitchell cadet Julie Reeves has already enlisted through the Navy's early entry program.
The military recognizes high school J-ROTC participation, so she'll graduate from boot camp two ranks ahead of her peers.
When asked why girls join, Zephyrhills senior Anna Strait had a quick reply.
"Boys in uniforms," she said wryly. "Seriously. They get into it."
Gulf High junior Tabitha Breda said: "You don't see many girls doing it, so I wanted to. It just seemed interesting, especially the drill teams."
Kim Ruark, 17, a Gulf High senior, wanted a way to get involved at school.
Her uncle, to whom she was very close before his death, was in the Navy. She wanted to follow in his footsteps.
"I'm not really into sports, and this lets me be a part of something," Ruark said. "I'm hooked. It's like a close-knit family."
It's a family that sometimes is picked on. Some kids say ROTC is a cult, or that cadets are masochists who enjoy being barked at.
At Zephyrhills, cadets are sometimes razzed and called "pickles" for the green Army uniforms they wear every Wednesday.
How do they respond?
"I just say that I'm proud to wear it, that I'm proud to be an American," said Huffman, Zephyrhills' cadet company commander. "When I put it on for the first time, it was a rush."
Cadets say they act differently when they wear the uniform. They walk taller and horse around less.
They also have to meet military grooming standards: hair off the collar, no earrings or other piercings.
"The uniform has an effect on your attitude," said cadet Levi Lawhon, 17, the company commander at Mitchell High.
"You're more serious when you wear it, and you don't goof off."
The Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps is the most popular student activity in Pasco County.
Marching band 716
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111