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    Junior ROTC members mixed on possible war

    [Times photo: Lance A. Rothstein]
    Bloomingdale High School's Air Force JROTC, from Valrico, practices its routine Saturday at a competition at the University of Tampa.

    By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 8, 2002


    TAMPA -- They twirled rifles without wrinkling crisp uniforms, wore shoes polished with spit and Windex.

    But the Junior ROTC students who participated in drill competitions Saturday at the University of Tampa weren't marching in lock step when it came to the question of war with Iraq.

    "A lot of people think, 'Let's kick their butts.' A lot of people don't," said Sarah Steinberger, 15, a sophomore at Sarasota Military Academy.

    "I hate war," she said. "They can find another way."

    Polls show many Americans have mixed feelings about a war with Iraq. Apparently, so do some potential soldiers.

    More than 1,000 high school students from 30 Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs in Florida were bused in for Saturday's competition, which UT has sponsored every year since 1972. Under clear skies, they strutted their stuff on soccer fields.

    "Eyes right!" barked one commander as her team marched past parents and judges.

    A dozen heads turned right, faces stern.

    In the bleachers behind them, giant black and yellow letters spelled out the UT's team name: "SPARTANS."

    Far away, United Nations inspectors looked for weapons of mass destruction. Gen. Tommy Franks prepared for war games.

    Polls show most Americans support military action against Iraq, but aren't in a hurry for war. Some polls show that a sizeable minority wants all options exhausted before an attack.

    Many JROTC members said war was justified.

    "Why should we wait to get nuked?" said Dan Chuhran, 17, a junior at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg.

    "We're ridding the world of a very evil man," said Brandon Bestard, 16, a junior at Killian High School in Miami.

    Bestard said he'll enlist in the Marine Corps after graduation -- so he can fight.

    "I want to see action," he said.

    Other members of his drill team shook their heads.

    A war with Iraq is "stupid," said senior Kimberly Alvarado, squad commander. The Bush administration "should think about the lives we're sending there."

    Lindsay Robinson also said her peers are divided.

    Robinson, 15, is a sophomore at Sarasota Military Academy, a charter school that opened this year with 280 students. Many of them have family members in the military.

    "That's why there's so many mixed opinions," she said. "Everyone knows war is war. It's not a nice thing."

    Robinson said she doesn't have an answer for the Iraq question. "I couldn't make a decision based on what I've heard," she said.

    Fellow cadet Robert Craypo said he could.

    "We as Americans would not be saying these things if there's not truth to them," he said, referring to the possibility that Hussein is developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. "I don't want to go to war, but we've given him so many warnings."

    If war comes, the cadets said they'll be ready.

    "A lot of people died for this country," said Alejandro Rivera, a senior at Lyman High School near Orlando who will enlist in the Army in six months. "Why am I different?"

    Back on the grass, another drill team showed off its moves as a boombox blared Happy Together, a popular 1960s love song.

    "Pla-toooon halt," the commander shouted, signaling the end of the drill. "And how do we feel?"

    The team answered as one: "We feel soooooooo good."

    -- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

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