Thomas Stone’s JROTC helps stu­dents build char­ac­ter

School’s Army pro­gram was one of the first in the county

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By PAUL LAGASSE pla­gasse@somd­news.com

Next year marks the 25th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival of Ju­nior Re­serve Of­fi­cer Train­ing Corps pro­grams in Charles County high schools.

To­day, each of the county’s seven high schools has a JROTC pro­gram. One of the first was the Army pro­gram at Thomas Stone High School on Leonard­town Road in Wal­dorf.

Along with the Air Force pro­gram at Henry E. Lackey High School in In­dian Head and the Navy pro­gram at La Plata High School, the Army JROTC pro­gram at Thomas Stone be­gan ac­cept­ing stu­dents in 1993. The first in­struc­tor at Thomas Stone was re­tired Army Col. David Reilly.

Tra­di­tion­ally, JROTC in­struc­tors are re­tired mil­i­tary per­son­nel.

“They hadn’t re­ally re­cruited for the pro­gram, so on the first day I only had five stu­dents,” Reilly re­called. “Prin­ci­pal Herman Mur­rell said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get stu­dents for you.’ By the end of the first

se­mes­ter, we had 100 stu­dents.”

When the pro­gram be­gan, Reilly said, some teach­ers were ap­pre­hen­sive about it, view­ing it as a mil­i­tary re­cruit­ing pro­gram.

JROTC stu­dents are not ob­li­gated to serve in the mil­i­tary when they grad­u­ate. The pro­gram’s goal is to help stu­dents de­velop a sense of dis­ci­pline and ser­vice while also learn­ing use­ful life and ca­reer skills.

“By the end of the first year I had nu­mer­ous teach­ers come up to me and tell me how much their opin­ion had changed and how much of a dif­fer­ence the pro­gram had made in the stu­dents’ lives,” Reilly said. “It made me feel good.”

The cur­ricu­lum at Thomas Stone, like most Army JROTC pro­grams, is di­vided into 10 ar­eas that fo­cus on a wide range of sub­jects in­clud­ing lead­er­ship and cit­i­zen­ship, com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, phys­i­cal fit­ness, first aid and hy­giene.

One pe­riod a day is ded­i­cated to JROTC in­struc­tion. Mon­days and Thurs­days are class­room in­struc­tion. On Tues­days, the stu­dents prac­tice drills. On Wed­nes­days, stu­dents wear their dress uni­forms and par­tic­i­pate in in­spec­tions. Fri­day is phys­i­cal fit­ness train­ing.

In ad­di­tion to classes, the pro­gram also of­fers four ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties that in­volve both pub­lic dis­play and prac­tice for com­pe­ti­tions against other JROTC teams at state, re­gional and na­tional drill meets.

The drill team prac­tices pre­ci­sion march­ing rou­tines. The raider team com­petes in ath­letic events that in­clude tests of strength, dis­tance run­ning, rope bridge construction, and res­cue. The ri­fle team fo­cuses on marks­man­ship with air ri­fles. The color guard of­ten per­forms at lo­cal sport­ing events and Amer­i­can Le­gion cer­e­monies.

Reilly, who lives in Vir­ginia, re­tired from the JROTC pro­gram last year, though he con­tin­ues to serve as the head coach of the var­sity soft­ball team. The cur­rent in­struc­tors are Lt. Col. (re­tired) Karen Him­mel­he­ber and 1st Sgt. (re­tired) Dou­glas J. Ot­ten.

Ot­ten says that their role in­cludes be­ing a coun­selor to the stu­dents. “A lot of times, they tend to look at us as mom and dad,” Ot­ten said. “That is a lit­tle flat­ter­ing. Since we are dif­fer­ent than your nor­mal class, we do tend to have kids for three or four years. We get to see them grow.”

Ot­ten said that one of the rea­sons he has re­mained a JROTC in­struc­tor for 12 years is be­cause ev­ery day he gets a chance to make a dif­fer­ence in stu­dents’ lives.

“If I had to sum­ma­rize the ben­e­fits in one word, I would say in­volve­ment,” Ot­ten said. “We get in­volved about ev­ery­thing. You may not like ev­ery­thing about the pro­gram, but all we’re ask­ing you to do is get in­volved.”

Stu­dents come to JROTC for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, Him­mel­he­ber said. “Some of them will get put in by their par­ents in the hope that they will learn dis­ci­pline,” she said. “Some of them are in­ter­ested in the mil­i­tary and they want to get a taste of that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“One young stu­dent joined be­cause she wanted to chal­lenge her­self,” Him­mel­he­ber said. “She said she was very in­tim­i­dated be­ing in front of peo­ple and she chose JROTC as her elec­tive to help get over that fear. And she’s push­ing her­self al­ready.”

Michael J. Charlton, prin­ci­pal of Thomas Stone, agrees with Ot­ten and Him­mel­he­ber about the ben­e­fits of the pro­gram for stu­dents, and en­cour­ages stu­dents to con­sider par­tic­i­pat­ing in it.

“The pro­gram shows the stu­dents that we value lead­er­ship, and it goes a long way to­ward show­ing the staff that it’s a valu­able com­po­nent for them too.”

“It also al­lows some stu­dents who maybe haven’t found their niche to ex­press them­selves,” Charlton said. “Many of them come out of it a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son.”

Cadet Lt. Re­becca Aya­nian has seen that trans­for­ma­tion first­hand as stu­dents learn to work as a team and de­velop trust and re­spect for each other.

“It’s like pick­ing up a bag of rocks,” Aya­nian said. “At first they’re rough, but by the end of the year they’re pol­ished and smooth. It’s re­ally phe­nom­e­nal to see that.”

“On the raider team, I was able to be a part of a team,” said Aya­nian, a ju­nior who plans to be­come a Marine Corps avi­a­tor. “We learned to rely on each other.”

Cadets don’t just learn from Him­mel­he­ber and Ot­ten, ei­ther. Part of lead­er­ship train­ing in­volves teach­ing fel­low cadets.

“I en­joy be­ing able to share the knowl­edge that I’ve ac­cu­mu­lated over the years of do­ing this pro­gram,” said Cadet Com­mand Sgt. Ma­jor Michael Petschk, a ju­nior who as­pires to be a sur­geon in the mil­i­tary. “I like watch­ing them progress and im­prove over time.”

Se­nior Talitheia Brack­ett, who was re­cently pro­moted to Cadet Cap­tain, is re­spon­si­ble for a com­pany of 40 stu­dents. She says she likes her in­struc­tors. “Through­out the three years I’ve been here, I can al­ways sit down and talk with them,” said Brack­ett who plans to be a reg­is­tered nurse in the Air Force. “When you join JROTC, ev­ery­one be­comes like fam­ily.”

Sto­ries like th­ese are what in­spired David Reilly to stay in­volved with the Thomas Stone JROTC pro­gram for so long.

Reilly re­called one of his stu­dents, a “tough kid” who had al­ways got­ten into fights and in­tim­i­dated the younger stu­dents be­fore she joined the JROTC pro­gram.

At the end of her se­nior year, the stu­dent stood up and gave an im­promptu speech to the in­com­ing fresh­men.

“Don’t do what I did,” Reilly re­called the stu­dent’s ad­mo­ni­tion. “Don’t blow off your high school ca­reer and think it will go away like I did.”

She pointed to Reilly and the up­per­class­men. “Th­ese peo­ple here will take an in­ter­est in you and help you make some­thing of your­self.”

STAFF PHOTO BY PAUL LAGASSE

Cadets in Thomas Stone High School’s JROTC pro­gram stand at at­ten­tion prior to uni­form in­spec­tion.

STAFF PHO­TOS BY PAUL LAGASSE

Above left, uni­form in­spec­tion is a weekly rou­tine for cadets in Thomas Stone High School’s JROTC pro­gram. Above right, Re­tired Army Lt. Col. Karen Him­mel­he­ber re­cently joined the staff of Thomas Stone High School as se­nior Army in­struc­tor in the JROTC pro­gram. Be­low, the cadets in Thomas Stone High School’s JROTC pro­gram have a busy sched­ule this se­mes­ter.

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