Lee County Ju­nior Re­serve Of­fi­cers’ Train­ing Corps

Only Chicago has more high school en­roll­ment, stress­ing values over en­list­ment

Gulf & Main - - Gulf & Main - BY GLENN MILLER

They wear uni­forms and drill and fo­cus on dis­ci­pline. But the boom­ing Ju­nior Re­serve Of­fi­cers’ Train­ing Corps pro­gram, or JROTC, in Lee County high schools isn’t about en­list­ing in any of the mil­i­tary branches. Stu­dents don’t study field tac­tics or learn how to drive tanks or fire can­nons. In fact, "JROTC is very lit­tle mil­i­tary,” says re­tired Lt. Col. Don­ald Bar­nett, su­per­vis­ing the Mariner High School JROTC pro­gram in Cape Co­ral. The cur­ricu­lum is more about in­still­ing such virtues as cit­i­zen­ship, dis­ci­pline, team­work and lead­er­ship, he says. The pro­gram is enor­mously suc­cess­ful at Mariner and through­out the county, in fact, Bar­nett es­ti­mat­ing the Mariner pro­gram at about 560 stu­dents in the elec­tive class. That’s out of a to­tal stu­dent body of some 1,600 kids.

One of those Mariner stu­dents is ju­nior Mar­i­lyn Pozo, in her third year in JROTC. From the start of her fresh­man year, she wanted to join JROTC. “I hon­estly was anx­ious to join the pro­gram,” Pozo says on a re­cent af­ter­noon while sit­ting on a bench by the school’s foot­ball field as her in­struc­tors stand nearby. “It wasn’t just about re­cruit­ing for the mil­i­tary. I joined a team and be­came part of a fam­ily. Ever since then, I can’t imag­ine do­ing any­thing else.”

Pozo touts JROTC to other stu­dents. “I al­ways tell them it builds char­ac­ter and lead­er­ship,” she says. “It teaches things that no other class can teach you.”

Pozo’s en­thu­si­asm and that of other s in the Mariner pro­gram may help e xplain JROTC’s as­tound­ing pop­u­lar­ity in Lee County―the only school district in the coun­try with more JROTC stu­dents is in Chicago. Re­tired Com­mand Sgt. Ma­jor John Humphries su­per­vises the pro­gram for

JROTC stu­dents don’t fire can­nons, but rather learn virtues such as cit­i­zen­ship, dis­ci­pline and team­work.

the Lee County School District. He es­ti­mates coun­ty­wide JROTC en­roll­ment at roughly 5,700 stu­dents. That’s out of a high school en­roll­ment of around 25,000, mean­ing ap­prox­i­mately a quar­ter of all Lee County pub­lic high school stu­dents take this elec­tive.

The ap­peal is to not only stu­dents but par­ents such as Sara Fitz­patrick Comito, whose son, Rhys Bastien, is a sopho­more in the Mariner pro­gram. “It helped him get over some shy­ness and de­velop lead­er­ship skills,” Comito wrote in an email. “He feels more in­volved and en­gaged at school.”

Now that she has seen Rhys through nearly two years in the pro­gram, Comito is a JROTC fan and rec­om­mends the pro­gram to other par­ents. “Def­i­nitely,” Comito wrote in her email. “Loy­alty, duty, re­spect, self­less­ness, honor, in­tegrity and personal courage are the seven Army values the pro­gram pro­motes. The kids de­velop a nice ca­ma­raderie in pur­suit of those values.”

Mariner fresh­man Bri­anna Car­rion’s un­cle served in the Army and thought the pro­gram seemed “pretty cool.” So she signed up for the class. She likes how JROTC teaches real-life lessons. “One les­son the other week was on eti­quette,” Bri­anna says. “They teach eti­quette and how to be a leader.”

The wide-rang­ing cur­ricu­lum also ap­peals to Mar­i­lyn Pozo, who hopes to some­day be­come a pe­di­atric on­col­o­gist. JROTC, she says, helped her ad­just to high school and to ma­ture. "When I was a lit­tle, tiny, timid fresh­man—more than I am now—I was re­ally ner­vous," ex­plains Pozo, who com­petes on the drill team. “I was re­ally ner­vous. I was such a ner­vous girl. I couldn’t step out. I couldn’t be that per­son out on the spot. And now I do per­for­mances.”

So do other JROTC teams from through­out Lee County. The North Fort My­ers High School Mixed Raider team, for ex­am­ple, won the na­tional JROTC ti­tle last fall in a com­pe­ti­tion with five events―ob­sta­cle course, cross-coun­try res­cue, rope bridge, 5K team run and phys­i­cal team test. Mariner placed fourth in the same con­test.

An in­ter­est­ing side note is that Mar­i­lyn Pozo re­ceives ca­reer guid­ance from men­tors such as Kim­berly Williams, a Mariner JROTC in­struc­tor and re­tired U.S. Army master sergeant. “Master sergeant has talked about how I can reach my goal of be­ing a doc­tor,” Pozo says.

Steps on that jour­ney are now be­ing taken in Mariner High JROTC classes. Glenn Miller is a pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ist and fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to TOTI Me­dia.

Cape Co­ral's Mariner High School JROTC is one of Lee County's larger pro­grams, with some 560 stu­dents en­rolled in the elec­tive class.

High school drill teams are fiercely com­pet­i­tive in Florida.

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