Junior ROTC is not a typical elective at OHS

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
The JROTC Raider team participates in more physical competitions.

OKEECHOBEE — JROTC which stands for Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps is one of the electives offered at Okeechobee High School. At this time, the program has approximately 110 students enrolled, said Sgt. Valparisia Gibson, who runs the program along with Major Donavan Locklear.

The students who are enrolled in JROTC come to class at least five times per week, and some of them come even more often. They have various “LET” (Leadership Education Training) levels, based on beginning to advanced. You start at LET one and move up through until you reach LET four. They spend some time in the classroom doing bookwork and some time outside doing calisthenics or organizational sports or various other things. On Wednesdays, they are all required to wear their uniforms. After school, they practice for events. On the weekends, they participate in competitions.

“It’s unique. It’s not just a ‘Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until 7:50 a.m. and you are done type of class.’ Some of my upper cadets come in during my first period, because those are all my freshman. They come in and assist us by teaching the freshman how to march or how to tie a tie or how to fix their hair, things like that. Then they still have to come back for their own class. They are often there two or three times a day. Each hour counts as another credit,” said Sgt. Gibson.

When it comes to book learning, LET one teaches them everything they need to know about JROTC. LET two teaches them about first aid. LET three teaches them about leadership. LET four teaches them about finances and about conducting a class, giving a speech, how to command, etc.

“At first I did it just to try it out. In eighth grade, they just said, ‘pick an elective.’ It was either PE or ROTC or one other one, I forgot what it was, and I took PE for the first semester,” said Josmar Estrada. He wasn’t really into it at first, but he liked the people. He met Sgt. Gibson, and she made him experience things he never had before, things like speaking in front of a crowd, trying new things, he said. “It was a family aspect and learning new things,” he explained. “It made me fall in love with it.” He would like to join the Army at some point. He is a senior this year, and he has been in JROTC since he was a freshman.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
The JROTC drill team participated in the Forest Hill Drill Meet on Jan. 18.

Mercedes White is a junior, and also started JROTC as a freshman. “When I came in, I was really shy,” she said. “I didn’t talk to anyone. Now, we are the top two in the battalion. He is the battalion commander, and I am the battalion command sergeant major, she explained. Meaning, he is in charge of all officers, and I am in charge of all enlisted cadets. I’m new people. He’s older people. We work together to help JROTC run smoothly.” All of this has helped her come out of her shell and become a better leader, and therefore a better person, she explained. Mercedes would like to commission as an officer, so she plans to continue her ROTC by joining senior ROTC in college.

JROTC is not a requirement to becoming an officer, she said. It is really just a high school elective. If she took four years of JROTC in high school and then joined the service, she would get an extra rank and would be a private first class, she said, rather than a private. If she did four years of senior ROTC and had never done high school ROTC, she could commission as an officer. “People think JROTC is something to recruit for the military, but in my personal opinion, as someone who has never been interested in military life,” said Mercedes, “I don’t think it has anything to do with the military, well obviously it does,” she laughed, “but, it’s more about leadership, character development and citizenship.”

In answer to an oft-asked question from the public, “Why don’t the cadets wear hats when they are in outdoor events such as parades,” Sgt. Gibson explained it is really a matter of finances. “If you think about it, there is a constant turn over. If a student leaves, we can’t necessarily take the hat and use it for another student, or we’d have to take it to the cleaners.” They do issue “covers” to the drill team and the Raider team, she said. “Even if they took up a collection and got the money for the hats, she isn’t sure they could even get enough for everyone. They can only wear the gray berets, not the black ones, like active duty members wear. The senior ROTC programs are supplied first, and the JROTC programs get what is left, so it is unlikely they could get enough for everyone even if they had the money to do it, she said. The ones in senior ROTC are definitely going into the military. The military is paying for their college, she explained.

In the Fall, the JROTC has what they call their Raider season. The raiders are the physical team, said Josmar. “We go on competitions and do runs. We do tire flipping. We do an event called Rope Bridge. That involves a lot of team work, and you have to do everything together as a unit. You make a bridge out of a long rope, and you have to get a person from one side to the other side. It’s pretty fun, and it’s not hard, but it makes you use your head a lot. You have to think of who is the strongest person, and who is going to be the fastest to go across. That’s one of the best things about this program. Without even realizing it, you learn things you will use in real life.”

Sgt. Gibson is in charge of the color guards and things like that. Major Locklear is in charge of the Raider team and also takes leadership of their Leadership and academic bowl teams. Their academic team advanced this year to the second round. Level three is a national competition and would go to Washington.

The other students in school seem to be curious about JROTC. The majority of them don’t treat the JROTC students badly, they said. “I think because our administration is so supportive, it helps a lot with that,” said Mercedes. “They know we do a lot for the community too.” They very often volunteer their services to help with parking for events or they will do color guard events if requested, anything they are asked to do, they said.

It’s easy to join JROTC they said, all you have to do is sign up for the class.

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