WALLA WALLA – While most of their peers slept in Saturday morning, by 0600 hours cadets from the Rogers High School Air Force JROTC were squared away and ready for inspection.
The night before, the teens spent hours sitting in the hallways of a downtown Walla Walla hotel, shining their shoes to a high gloss.
“They have to be perfect,” said cadet Staff Sgt. Kathy Ross, with black shoe polish smeared on her leg.
By 0940 Saturday, the cadets were standing at attention in straight lines inside a building at Walla Walla High School, eyes to the front.
“Yes, sir. The birth date of the U.S. Air Force is 18 September 1947, sir,” cadet Chief Master Sgt. Joshua Arnold, 18, shouted. Nearby, other stony-faced military officers drilled away at Arnold’s fellow cadets about military history or current events.
The event was part of the Northwest Drill and Rifle Conference Championships in Walla Walla, where more than 30 Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps units from throughout the region came to compete.
“I love marching,” said cadet Aashley Bee, 16. “It’s the only sport I like and have stuck with.”
While parents and staff at some other schools in recent years have worked to keep the military presence on campus to a minimum, the Rogers group is thriving with more than 100 cadets. While only some of those students compete in drill team and color guard, they all attend classes each day.
“It’s the closest I’m ever going to get to the military,” said cadet Staff Sgt. Richard Johnston, a junior who has epilepsy and cannot enlist after high school. Johnston isn’t in the color guard or the drill team, but he’s proud to be a part of the Rogers unit, he said.
The program was established in the northeast Spokane high school seven years ago, the only Spokane public school to welcome the structure and discipline of the military into its hallways.
“It’s really treated like any other activity at our school,” said Rogers Principal Carole Meyer. “These students stand for some pretty strong moral and ethical beliefs; it teaches them some great skills for life.”
Except it’s not like other high school courses. There are more rules and regulations – like haircuts and wearing a uniform once a week. Adults should be addressed as sir or ma’am.
Previous Rogers Principal Wallace Williams said the program provided a boost for the 20 percent of students from the predominantly low-income school who choose the military after high school.
“It’s a saving grace for a lot of these kids,” said Teri Bell, a member of the Rogers JROTC parent group. “It gives them focus.”
The JROTC concept was developed under the National Defense Act of 1916, in an effort to increase military readiness in the face of World War I.
Since the early 1990s, the program – housed only in public schools – has undergone a rapid expansion and transformation from previous years.
There are 500,000 cadets in schools across the country, according to the Defense Department.
While Western Washington is saturated with JROTC units in high schools, there are few in Eastern Washington and Rogers is the largest. The units are different from college ROTC units, in which most cadets have scholarships to help pay college costs, and active-duty enlistment is expected as a condition after graduation.
Other area units include an Air Force division at Medical Lake High School near Fairchild Air Force Base, an Army unit at Wellpinit High School on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and another Air Force unit at the high school in Clarkston. In Idaho, there are only two JROTC units in the state, a Marine Corps unit at Kellogg High School and an Army unit in Boise.
Once a program is established, the Department of Defense provides textbooks, uniforms and instruction. School districts provide the space, and some help with the salary for the retired military personnel hired to teach the programs. Saturday’s trip to Walla Walla was paid for by the military.
ROTC cadets are put through their paces daily, marching, drilling and working out, listening to classroom lectures about military history, world wars and the U.S. Constitution. About 40 percent of the Air Force JROTC curriculum concernc aerospace science.
“I’ve probably learned more about myself,” said Sean Boyington, the cadet commander at Rogers, which means he is the top cadet. Boyington, like his father, received an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The teen is home-schooled and attends Rogers just for JROTC.
“It’s an education you won’t get anywhere else,” he said.
JROTC programs are sometimes considered an odd fit for schools, which in recent years have faced opposition from community groups and parents over the issue of military recruiters in schools. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools must allow military recruiters access to personal contact information on students and access to school buildings. “If you don’t let them in, you could lose your federal funding,” said East Valley High School Principal Jeff Miller. Recruiters come to his Spokane Valley school once a week, sometimes more, he said.
“They come in at lunch and set up displays, give away pencils and Frisbees or whatever students are willing to do push-ups for,” Miller said.
The mission is to motivate students to be better citizens, officials said.
“A lot of what we teach is leadership skills; skills that are going to make them successful no matter which path they choose,” said retired Maj. Mark Groves, who instructs a Marine Corps JROTC unit at Kellogg High School in Idaho. The program has been in place since the 1970s.
Although there are incentives – including pay grade increases – for students who do enlist after high school, cadets aren’t pressured.
“We don’t keep track of numbers; there is no quota,” said retired Col. Don Oukrop, of Rogers. “It’s all about developing citizens of character; we want them to focus on being the very best that they can be.”
To be sure, students at Rogers organize and complete dozens of community projects. They have donated more than 1,500 hours of community service so far this year. Service to the community is one core element of the program and a tenet of the Air Force.
Other requirements include maintaining an average GPA of 2.0 and being respectful.
If cadets do choose to enlist, they generally are ahead of the average recruit when they get to boot camp.
“They know how to march, they know how to wear the uniform,” Groves said.
About 73 of Kellogg’s 400 students participate in his program, which includes access to .22-caliber rifles and a shooting range behind the school; such access to firearms is rare for JROTC programs. Rogers does some rifle spinning activities, but uses fake guns.
“We are a fairly patriotic area,” Groves said. “It’s just a program that fits a niche for a lot of people here.”
Rogers’ program is also highly visible to the Spokane community, with the color guard performing regularly at functions throughout the area.
“They just don’t represent this school, they represent Spokane,” said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Loyd Patton, one of two instructors at Rogers. Patton’s son, Lane, also participates.
In Spokane Valley, East Valley High School officials, like those at hundreds of other schools, applied for a Naval JROTC unit several years ago.
“We have a lot of kids that go into the military, and we thought it would be a great opportunity,” Miller said.
Schools like EV wanting a unit are put on a waiting list with other schools seeking ROTC programs from the Air Force, Marine Corps, Army or Navy.
But the programs have not always been welcomed.
In Wellpinit, school officials made the JROTC a requirement for all freshman when the program was implemented in 2003.
“There were some parents who didn’t want their kids involved whatsoever,” said Larry Anderson, a retired Army sergeant major who instructs the Wellpinit unit. And so JROTC became an elective this year.
As a consequence, the number of students in the program dropped from more than 50 to 33 this year, Anderson said. The number of participants is still significant considering the enrollment at the high school is 97, Anderson said. Each unit is required to enroll at least 10 percent of students to sustain the programs, military officials said.
Samantha Flett, a 17-year-old Wellpinit senior, said being able to put JROTC on her resume helped her gain acceptance to the University of Washington.
“It’s the reason I wanted to take the class in the first place,” said Flett, although it was required when she was a freshman. “It’s really just like any other class.”