Drilling under a hot sun is a hallmark of joining the military.
At Maricopa High School, 14 incoming freshmen got a taste of that with the Air Force Junior ROTC program during Leadership Week, May 23-27.
Retired Lt. Col. Allen Kirksey, the new instructor of the program, said he expects around 150 students participating in the program this year.
Leadership Week is summer camp of sorts for Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. It is also the first real introduction to ROTC for the students who just finished eighth grade. Continuing cadets put the newcomers through their paces in physical training and combat fitness.
They also received instruction in flag-raising.
And they drilled.
For Chet Carroll, that meant learning “how to step, how to stay in line with everybody else and not try to go too fast or too slow and keep up.”
Unlike other newbies, Carroll is an incoming junior, a transfer from Benjamin Franklin High School in the East Valley, where there was no JROTC program.
“I want to be in the Marines, and I’m assuming this is going to give me a little bit of a head start,” he said.
Contessa Ramirez comes to MHS from Desert Wind Middle School. Her father was in the Military Police.
“I thought this was going to be a very cool idea,” she said. “It’s really fascinating, and I want to [join] the Rangers or U.S. Marshals or work on weather for Air Force.”
She said she read two chapters of the Air Force manual to be somewhat prepared, but Leadership Week has taught her how much work she needs to do over the summer.
The camp is not just a chance for upperclassmen to yell at freshmen. They are learning leadership techniques, how to assert themselves and plan for their future.
Incoming junior Dylan Hill has been involved in the JROTC program since freshman year in hopes of a career in the U.S. Army or Marines.
“I think serving my country is one of the most important things I can do,” Hill said.
JROTC, she said, “has made me a better leader. I enjoy the extracurriculars like color guard and drill team.” In fact, she instructs other cadets in color guard.
Keaton Lancaster, an incoming senior, is also using JROTC as preparation for the military.
“The military has always been something I’ve been interested in as a kid. It’s been my dream to join the Army,” he said. “And I feel that ROTC is a way that I can set myself professionally to reach those goals of mine.”
Lancaster’s father was in the National Guard and his grandfather served in Vietnam.
A family background in the military is typical of many cadets. Whitney Mason graduated from MHS in May and is taking her four years of JROTC training to Grand Canyon University and eventually the military. Her grandfather was in the Army, one uncle was in the Army and another uncle works for the Department of Defense.
“Navy offers me more, but Marines is where my heart has always been. So it’s kind of, do I do what I want or do I live comfortably?” she said.
She came to MHS as a junior after already being involved in Marines JROTC. It was shift in learning, suddenly having to study aerospace science, but experience had already instilled serious self-confidence.
“When I first got here, it was kind of set up that ‘These are the next commanders whether you like it or not.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, but I can match skills with these people.’ So I kind of knocked one of them out of the way and took his spot,” she said.
“Then we lost an entire chain of command at one point because they could not get along. My junior year, we saw that and we said, ‘We are so not going to do that next year.’ And it didn’t happen.”
“It’s helped me grow up a lot,” Lancaster said of JROTC. “It’s helped me change my mindset from, ‘Oh, everything’s a joke,’ to ‘This is something that’s real. This is serious.’ It’s changed me in a good way, and it’s set my professional standards higher.”
Coming into a new school, Carroll said the program allowed him to meet more people and make friends in between school years.
Though Ramirez said she knew some of her classmates in the program from DWMS, “when you’re here, it’s brothers and sisters and family, not friends.”
“I was used to having a commander breathing down my neck. If you’re not doing something right, you’re doing it wrong, always,” Mason said. “Here, it’s kind of OK to make mistakes, but over time if you don’t get it right, you gotta go.”