Thomas Stone’s JROTC helps students build character
School’s Army program was one of the first in the county
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.”
Cadets in Thomas Stone High School’s JROTC program stand at attention prior to uniform inspection.
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.