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epending on your worldview-or your capacity for conspirary theories-Maj. Wlliam Weber is either a well-meaning American role model for a generation sorely in need of one, or a secret agent in Big Brother's clandestine campaign to brainwash impressionable minds. His office, tucked away in the basement of

the 1,850-snrdent Westhill High School in Stamford, Conn., seems harmless enough: A bunch of student photos mingle with cadet portraits on the walls, boxes of fund-raising candy are stacked on his desk and floor, with various decorative touches of At*y paraphernalia throughout. But some might find his daily mission of teaching kids

life skills through a military lens to be decidedly dubious, particuhrly in these times. Weber, a 26-year Army veteran, leads Westhill's instruction for the Junior Reserve Officer Ti'aining Corps, better known as JROTC. Back in March, shordy after the fightirg in Iraq started, I visited him and several of his cadets for a window on \Mar uncolored by the Pentagon hawks or CNN pundits. With our nation facing the possibility of its first prolonged campaign against terrorism, ffiy questions were simple: How are people of my generation-f am 22-handling the prospect of war? Can we, touted as self-absorbed Silicon Valley-era slackers lacking in substantive patriotic and moral values, be trusted to think critically about this war and perhaps more importandy, pick up the mande of national secuity in the funrre? What's more, does exposure to the corps' conditioning bias students toward the milrtary before th.y even earn a driver's license? Sitting in Weber's office, I noticed that one of those young faces staring out from his JROTC wall of fame is that of Jose, a former classmate of mine who is a member of the 82nd Airborne, and who I later learned is currendy fighting somewhere in the Gulf. The sight ofJose only crystallizedmy belief that many of my peers-particularly those of black and Hispanic descent who account for a majority of JROTC enrollment at Westhill-might be walking blindly into the senrice when all they actually wanted was a curriculum that assured some options. But Weber says that's not the program's agenda at all. "Our mission is to help young people become better citizens," h. says, "not to push the military...We wouldnt want someone in the military who doesnt belong there." fu much as I wanted to chalk that statement up to the very military rhetoric I'd questioned all alon g, my time at Westhill proved Weber right. The JROTC was established at Westhill in 1995, and became

the only At-yJROTC program in southeastern Connecticut. Its funding formula is fairly straightforward: the Defense Department provides instructors and contributes half of their

from the local school board), as well the general operating cost of the program, which amounts to roughly $15,000 per year. Like many high schools across the nation, Westhill offers JROTC as a standard elective course, salaries (the other half comes as

stressing communication skills, leadership, physical fitness, drug abuse prevention, citizenship and technology awareness; the program's literature emphasizes its no-pressure approach to enlistment. Easy to spot in a crowd, once a week, JROTC students don the same military uniforms as active soldiers. But once a week isnt frequent enough for SE. Marvin Duncan It., a bright and ambitious 17 -yearold senior who goes by the name Duncan both in and out of the corps. He plans to enlist in the Marines and is already talking with recruiters. And what about the war in Iraq, the casualties we hear about on the evening news? Dont th.y affect Duncan's goals? "To ffiâ‚Ź, it's just another obstacle," he says. "I'm not going to change my whole plan because of it...I see myself in combat, but I'm not scared. That's part of the jobJ' Such sentiment among JROTC cadets is echoed throughout Westhill's corridors. Yaitza Gonzal ez, anorher 17 -yearold senior, who is a major and the highest ranking young woman in the pro#am, enlisted in the Air Force in August 2002 to pursue opportunities in finance. Several Westhill graduates she knows have been shipped off to wa\ and she also has an uncle who's a captatn in the Ar-y, but that didnt stop her from signing up. "It's kind of scary to think about next yeag" she says, "but I'm rcady. I'm one of those nationalist people, though. I'm like, 'Let's go. Yeah."' Even senior Tommy Ligon, a l9-year-old second lieutenant who joined the program four years ago with plans to enlist but has since decided against doing so, doesnt flinch when asked about combat. "They're not drafrtg, but if th.y did, I'd have to do my dury" he says. "If it

it happens." Despite all the adolescent patriotic fervor, critics still argue that high school kids are ill-equipped to fully comprehend the ramificahappens,

tions of combat-falling prey instead to the picture painted by cheerleading instructors and the entertainment industry. But proponents doubt this can happetr, and th.y also point out that it's not in the military's best interest for students to enlist if they are unprepared, especially as the prospect of seeing combat becomes more real. "I dont want them waking up in Iraq and suddenly realizing th.y dont want to be there...They're fully briefed and cognizant, and th.y understand th.y might have to put their lives on the line "

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says Weber. The statistics seem to bear that out: only

into the military, they're going

22 Westhill students went

questions. . .because

service

in 2002. While the figure is high

parents krorr, the more they understand that it's just a pro-

compared with the rest of the arca-Iikely owing to

gram that helps motivate and teach leadership." JROTC boosters say the stigma attached to the corps

into

the

to enlist.' They should ask

Westhill having one of only five Army JROTC programs in the region-it acnrally rep-

resents

would fade

only 5 percent of

tions, but who it's aimed at. "In the beginning, we were kind of a dumping ground for problem kids," Weber says, "but the kids

is

that the vast majority of JROTC cadets at Westhill are black and Hispanic. (Minorities

only make up roughly half of Westhill's snrdent body.) We've all heard the obvious reasons about the armed services traditionally being a means for students to finance their education, and gi"g inner-city youth an opportunity to

overcome

their

communities

were enlightened not only about the program's inten-

Westhill's Class of 2002.

More troubling, though,

if

the more

responded

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circumstances and serve their counflry. That all sounds good, but the reality is that though many snldents, like Yarrtza, plan to obtain degrees during their duty, it isnt

well. No*,

they've gotten away from thinking we can just fix whatever's wrongr but they realize that we do have more tools than the average teacher to help kids rcalize that a lot of

the problems they might in the mind

have are really

and that they can get over them." The sense of order and discipline

in JROTC is

apparent.

the sole goal of enlistirg. And for each student aiming to barter education for enlistrnent, there is probably a cadet like Duncan, who aims to be fully active before possibly pursuing a trade.

in the program tend to walk tall and wear their uniforms with pride, and th.y speak with respect and deference about the

enior instructor Weber and S$. M^j. Lance Finick, Westhill's Army JROTC instructor and a 25-year Army veteran, cite several incentives for high minority enrollment. "One, when you're inJROTC, you're Army green, period," Weber says. "It's a level playng field to begin with." All the pressures that go with being a minonty student stop

and character. Yet make no mistake, these cadets are also regular high school kids. Thke Major Gonzal ez-Yantza-who is dating the battalion

IoJROTC, the instructors say, and students are given an opportunity to excel that isnt necessarily linked to academics, athat the door

letics or socioeconomics. The second reason revolves around Stamford's immigrant populations. "Many of the kids are first generation or somethirg like it," Finick says, "and these young men and women are very patrioti c, very proud of being here. ..They have a sense of belonsng." Finally, as more and more minority students become involved \MithJROTC and respond well, families are much more likely to send siblings through, and younger students are also more likely to enroll on the advice of upperclassmen.

Putting an even finer point on the issue of high minority enrollment, Yantza says: "This particular area has rich white kids, and parents hear about the program and thitrk, 'God, my kid's going

Snrdents

co{ps and their instructors. They stand when they're called upon in class, and are appropriately contrite over any lapses in judgement

cofirmander, Diego Romero, an l8-year-old senior and the only cadet ranked above her in the program. He's Air Force too, and

when he suggests he might consider switching to the Army, she moves to kick him in the shin and jokingly declares, "That's what I thought," when he dodges. When I mention that Duncan is bound for the Marines, the mood turns serious. "Make us proud, man. Make us proud," says Ligon, who after four yeafs ofJROTC decided to go to college and focus on his studies and wresding. Duncan's classmates all know what other Americans are bound to start discovering: far from being a slacker, Duncan is a patriot, living proof that the tragedy of his generation is not its lack of principles. Perhaps the only real tragedy is that there arent other programs like JROTC-structured, funded, competendy and compassionately led-that offer him the same oppornrnity for success without the potential for the gravest of consequences to himself, his community and his country. Y

SAVOYMAG.COM I luN14uLY 2oo3

War 101?  

As the war on terror gathers force, the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps is suddenly more than just a ticket to upward mobility for min...

War 101?  

As the war on terror gathers force, the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps is suddenly more than just a ticket to upward mobility for min...

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