Cadets in the Navy’s Junior ROTC program at Shelton High school handle M1 Garand’s with precision.
They twirl, flip and sling the 13-pound rifles over their shoulders at a recent competition near Tacoma.
The best in the unit is called the Armed Drill Team Commander. Shelton High’s Carley Kunkle is the best.
“I used to be a really shy person and I used to not want to talk to anybody. I’ve gained a lot of confidence. That’s how ROTC has helped me,” she says. “It’s also helped me to be a leader.”
She barks orders to a couple dozen uniformed, marching peers.
“Before I get the first command I get really nervous, then once I give it I’m not even thinking. It makes me feel good that I’m in charge and they’re actually listening to me,” Kunkle says as she shouts in rhythm “Eyes … eyes … eyes, eyes, eyes,” meaning fellow cadets need to march forward, looking right at the military judges.
Kunkle is one of 104 students involved with the Navy’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corp. That’s greater than the number of kids involved with football. But it’s not enough. The U.S. Navy has announced that Shelton’s program is on the list of nine units scheduled to be disestablished in June of this year.
As the deadline for the sequester draws near (March 1, 2013) the White House is sounding the alarm about the impact the $1.2 trillion in cuts will have. For months, the Defense Department has been preparing for military cuts.
Sometimes the smallest cuts sting the most.
Shelton’s ROTC program was warned last fall if they didn’t get their numbers up to 10 percent of the high school’s student population the program would be cut.
The school has about 1,000 students. They increased participation – going from about 70 students then to more than 100 this year. Still they were told, sorry, it’s being cut.
“Everything was based on numbers. It had nothing to do with the value of the unit or what the return was to the Navy,” says Helen Thomson, a Navy Junior ROTC program coordinator.
“From our unit alone in the past four years we’ve had three students from Shelton receive ROTC scholarships. That’s $180,000 per student to go to college. That’s big. For a town of Shelton that’s less than 10,000 people, that’s big.”
Thomson is also the parent of a ROTC cadet, who has seen the value of the program in a more personal way.
“It’s hard to put in words how they change, but they do,” she says. “Their citizenship and the leadership that they’re learning is not anything they get anywhere else. It’s a great way for them to connect with their peer group.”
“This is the future,” says Tom Thien, is a retired Lieutenant Commander with the U.S. Navy. He’s the Navy Junior ROTC Naval Science Instructor.
“We’re not a recruiter. We don’t ask them to go into the military. We just ask them to be a responsible citizen in the future,” Thien says. “The Navy’s core values are honor, courage and commitment and I think we see that in the cadets. I keep trying to stress to them an old Spiderman thing ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and that’s us.”
Student Carley Kunkle says without the ROTC, she would never have known she has an aptitude for military leadership.
“I’m really looking at getting into the Naval Academy in Annapolis. I’m also going to apply to Virginia Military Institute. I want to go to some kind of military college,” the high school junior says. “Then I want to go into the Marine Corps for the physical challenge and then after that I want to become a federal agent.”
The program costs about $170,000 a year. Half of that amount covers the cost of a retired military instructor, while the rest pays for uniforms, supplies, and the curriculum.
In lieu of the ROTC program, the Navy will offer these schools an opportunity to host a program with a similar curriculum and training, but it shifts the funding responsibility almost entirely to the school district.
The Navy plans to close more than 100 ROTC programs by 2016. In the past year, units have been discontinued at Mariner High School and Issaquah High School.
By LINDA THOMAS