BY CHIEF ARON AYERS, USN. RET.
LAHS Senior Naval Science Instructor
Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) is a federally funded high school program, with schools affiliating with a single branch of the armed forces. Unlike ROTC, the college scholarship program that leads to a commission in the United States military, JROTC has nothing to do with recruiting. Its official purpose is to “instill in students … the values of citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment.”
The Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (NJROTC) program at Los Alamos High School provides students, referred to as “cadets,” a unique opportunity to not only improve themselves but also their communities at the same time. The main purpose of the class is to help cadets become better people and prepare them for life after high school. Being a part of NJROTC gives cadets an opportunity to give back to their community while building themselves and their self-discipline that in a normal high school setting can be difficult to achieve.
The program at LAHS, known as Topper Company, is sponsored by the U.S. Navy for ninth through 12th graders. It teaches discipline, respect and self-determination skills. Cadets have the option of joining various competitive teams, including armed and unarmed drill, academics, marksmanship, and physical fitness. These teams are a major source of pride for the cadets. Topper Company’s physical fitness team brought home a state championship last year with the other teams winning first place in competitions against other JROTC programs around the state.
“We have around 50 cadets that devote hours to training every week. We could not be prouder of their accomplishments,” says Naval Science Instructor Petty Officer Matt Bohlen.
The program is totally cadet-run, with leadership positions based on the Navy command structure. In addition to functional military skills, such as drill, honors, and ceremonies, the emphasis is on life-skills such as leadership, teamwork and community service. The cadets all have real functions and rank, including a commanding officer and executive officer, who set the unit’s goals for the year.
C/LTJG Emily Baca, Topper Company’s Supply Officer, handles over $500,000 worth of equipment and material supplied by the military. This includes uniforms, drill rifles, swords, flags, flag belts, and sword harnesses. C/LTJG Baca, a junior at LAHS, oversees it all. The job, as well as others that cadets take on, can easily be included on future resumes and college applications.
The Los Alamos NJROTC program also hosts a formal military ball every year, completely managed by cadets including negotiating with the hotel, caterers, and vendors, paid for by the Navy and fundraising. In addition, Topper Company takes field trips to military bases in the area and other locations such as Los Alamos National Laboratory.
When asked, many cadets named discipline, confidence, teamwork, overcoming and making friends as major benefits. The main benefits to the students are lasting, transferable and deeply personal.
“The class has brought out my strengths and qualities in ways other activities haven’t been able to,” C/SCPO Jaceena Hornberger, Topper Company’s Command Chief Petty Officer, who is in her third year in the program, said. “Having trust put in my abilities and teaching me how to be a better person and leader has given me a greater sense of confidence. The opportunity to watch my peers grow and progress alongside me is an amazing experience.”
Second-year cadet C/CPO Arthur Yarotski, the Unarmed Drill Team Commander, says, “The things that I enjoy about the NJROTC program are the people and the activities the program offers. All of the cadets respect you for who you are. This makes it a better team environment where everyone gets along without any trouble, which makes the activities way more enjoyable.”
“NJROTC has helped me with discipline and how to become more of a leader,” says C/SN Cooper Beavers, who is in his first year in the program. “It has also helped me make new friends.”
“The aspect of NJROTC that I enjoy the most is the tight knit community the cadets share. There is not another program, club, or organization at the high school that I feel brings students together and encourages them to succeed like NJROTC,” stated C/LCDR Emma Drake, Topper Company Commanding Officer and LAHS Student Body President. “It has taught me the valuable lesson of leadership. Before getting involved in NJROTC I thought that I knew how to lead, but really I only knew how to manage. Now I have a better understanding of what makes a leader and have been afforded countless opportunities to lead my peers by being a part of the program.”
“When my daughter said she wanted to join the NJROTC program in 9th grade, I was skeptical,” says KayLinda Crawford, mother of C/LT Megan Crawford, Topper Company Operations Officer and third in charge overall, and C/PO1 Natalie Crawford, marksmanship team member. “But, it didn’t take long to see how much the program meant to her and how much it was proving to be one of her most positive high school experiences. Simply put, she has thrived in ways she would not have without the NJROTC opportunity. Because of the overall benefits we could see in her, we were pleased when our younger daughter also joined the program.”
“They both show a strong sense of purpose (as individuals and as leaders) from becoming NJROTC cadets,” Mrs. Crawford further stated. “There’s no doubt that NJROTC has been the most enjoyable high school learning experience for both of my cadets. I am impressed by the program’s benefits and I highly recommend this elective for girls. I’m extremely grateful to Los Alamos High School for having such a strong program.”
“Our son is now a sophomore and proudly in his second year in the program,” says Keith Lacy, whose son, C/PO1 Kevin Lacy, is also a member of Topper Company’s marksmanship team. “I recently asked him what he has learned from the program. He replied with, ‘a sense of belonging to something, the importance of teamwork, respect for one another and commitment.’ As parents, we are very pleased with the positive impact NJROTC has had upon him.”
Tim Haight of the Los Alamos Elks Lodge had nothing but positive remarks when asked about the NJROTC program at LAHS. “One of the stand out events in which the cadets help out is our annual Veterans Day Dinner at the Elks Lodge. Our Veterans appreciate the cadets’ participation on that special day,” said Mr. Haight. “I see the smiles and small interactions amongst them, and, as a Veteran, I enjoy seeing these cadets mature and grow as they progress in our local NJROTC program. Our Veterans Day Dinner would not be the same without their presence.”
In addition to teams and other skills, cadets each perform hours of community service per grading period. They participate in events like color guard presentations, food drives, Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day events, and holding a memorial run to raise funds for veterans’ organizations.
While the training is along military lines, it is conducted so as to encourage initiative and individuality to develop natural gifts, to teach self-control, develop personal character, responsibility and qualities of integrity, loyalty, and dedication.
Cadets accepted for enlistment in the armed forces and provide evidence of successful completion of at least 3 years of NJROTC are entitled to advanced promotion to pay grade E-3 upon initial enlistment in an active or reserve component of the Navy, or Air Force, and pay grade E-2 in the Army or Marine Corps; or completion of 2 years are entitled to E-2 in the Navy.
“This is an immediate $300-$500 increase in monthly pay and reduces the time it takes to advance to E-4 anywhere from nine to 18 months,” explained Petty Officer Bohlen.
The Senior Naval Science Instructor is also authorized to nominate a maximum of three eligible cadets each year to compete for U.S. Naval Academy appointments. These appointments are generally only available from United States Senators and Representatives and are highly competitive.
Needless to say, NJROTC helps students gain a sense of community, particularly those not involved in other activities. Involvement in the program is viewed favorably by college admissions officers, to whom letters of recommendation are regularly sent. Leadership, character and community service are some of the core tenets of the NJROTC program at Los Alamos High School. Those values are at the heart of Topper Company emphasize to cadets the importance of working to better themselves, along with their family, school and country.
“The camaraderie that these cadets build with each other is unprecedented to any other program in high school. They spend the entire school year growing together and those that continue to stay in the program continue to grow more,” Petty Officer Bohlen stated. “They build relationships that have the potential to last a lifetime.”