BY CAROL ROEHM
For some Danville High School students, Junior ROTC offers them a bit of structure and focus during their often chaotic teen years.
For others, it’s about learning leadership skills and how to become a better citizen. And still for others who might not have a father figure in their life, the Junior ROTC gives them the discipline and encouragement they have been missing.
About 130 students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, signed up for Junior ROTC when it was first offered in the second semester.
A month into the program, the Junior ROTC still boasts 120 students or “cadets” — 60 percent boys and 40 percent girls — despite its rigorous physical training and discipline requirements.
Lt. Col. Tim Merriott, who leads the program with Sgt. Major Emas Griffin, said the number of girls enrolled in the program is not surprising.
“There are a number of strong personalities among the girls, and they want to learn leadership skills,” Merriott said.
In fact, shortly after the program started, Merriott fielded a phone call from the mother of an eighth-grade girl who inquired how to sign up her daughter for the program when she enters high school next year.
Cadet Myranda Mikel said she joined Junior ROTC because “it’s new and I wanted to try something different.”
“I signed up on my own because it looked interesting to me. It looked fun,” she said. “My mom and dad were like, ‘Why do you want to do that?’”
The sophomore, who is considering applying for the Air Force Academy when she graduates high school, admitted that the physical training aspect of the program “can be hard.”
“But it’s conditioning for us,” she said. “We do a lot of pushups.”
Cadet Nolan First, a DHS junior, said, “I like it. They push us, but I thought we would be doing obstacle courses.
“I’m planning on joining the National Guard, and (Junior ROTC) teaches leadership skills and respect for others,” he said. “It helps me to challenge myself to be a leader.”
Nolan praised Merriott and Griffin for their rapport with the cadets.
“Colonel and Sergeant Major have a good grasp on how to talk to the students,” he said. “They don’t go all military on us. You can tell they care about the students.”
Both Myranda and Nolan said they were a little surprised by some of the students who signed up for Junior ROTC.
“There are people who signed up that I didn’t think would, and they act differently now,” Nolan said. “It teaches them respect and discipline. Formation drills also teach you to be focused and not to be distracted.
“I think if anyone wants stability in their life, they should give it a try,” he added.
Myranda agreed. “The younger age kids I think will be more mature by the end of this (program).”
On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, the cadets listen to the two longtime servicemen lecture about leadership, a variety of topics such as how to fold an American flag and other life skills. The lectures encourage cadets to use critical thinking and are interactive, with each cadet using clicker-like technology to answer questions that are presented.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, cadets spend their class time in the gym, doing pushups, running laps and practicing formation drills.
For those cadets who feel especially ambitious, Merriott offers extracurricular physical training, which entails doing 100 side straddle hops, 100 pushups, 100 sit ups and 100 boot slappers plus running a mile in less than 8½ minutes.
“This is for the ones who really want to push themselves,” Merriott said, adding that four cadets usually join him on the jaunt.
The U.S. Army develops the curriculum for the four-year program of mandated activities and elective activities or LETs (leadership education training).
The Army pays for the curriculum and the cadets’ uniforms that they soon will be wearing in the hallways at DHS.
“We teach them how to tie a tie because, surprisingly, a lot of them don’t know how to tie a tie,” Merriott said.
Junior ROTC is part of the high school’s GLOBAL House, and students who are enrolled in the one-period-a-day, five-days-a-week program earn an elective credit and receive a physical education waiver.
“Being in Junior ROTC also helps them get a scholarship if they go into ROTC at a university or gives them an extra stripe (or higher rank) if they choose to go into the service,” Merriott said.
“We want it to be an encouragement for them,” he added. “We want them all to have the opportunity to move to the next level.”
Eventually, Danville’s Junior ROTC program will establish a drill team, color guard and an air rifle team, all of which will compete against other high schools with Junior ROTC programs.
On a typical day when cadets enter the classroom, they stand next to their desks until the class leader, who is a fellow cadet, tells them to sound off, which is the cadets’ cue to recite the Junior ROTC creed.
“We’re not here to promote the military,” Merriott said. “We’re here to teach good citizenship, and you have to give them a value system to build from.”
The cadet creed is the foundation of Junior ROTC program.
“Some are here because they want to learn more about the military; some want to be in better shape; and some are here because they want to learn to be better disciplined,” Merriott said.
“A lot of them want to learn good leadership skills and to become better citizens,” he added.
Of the 10 who dropped out of the program early on, Merriott said, “There were some who didn’t want to take orders, and we expect certain things, one of which is respect.”
The program also focuses on personal accomplishments and being recognized for it by receiving ribbons for good grades and other achievements as the cadets go through the program.
That kind of recognition and praise is often missing from students’ lives.
Merriott said when he first met with DHS Principal Mark Neil, an advocate of the program, Neil told him “you may be the only father figure they have.”
Merriott has seen first-hand the challenges some of his cadets face, particularly in their home life.
When Merriott asked the cadets to buy a $5 DHS gym shirt and to wear appropriate workout clothing and shoes for physical training, he was surprised when only a third of the cadets had bought the shirt. He was even more surprised by the number of cadets who didn’t have gym shoes.
“Some kids didn’t have the money for PT clothes and shoes,” he said, adding that he brought in some of his own teenage sons’ shoes from home for the cadets.
“It’s a new challenge every day. All of these kids have such dynamics in their home lives,” he said.
Still, Merriott said he already is seeing how the program is building cadets’ confidence and self-esteem.
“The best thing I love is the shine in their eyes that you’re reaching them,” he said. “I’m reaching them and teaching them skills for life.”