I spent the majority of my high school career in the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps., or NJROTC for short. NJROTC is a program implemented in several high schools across the U.S. that places an emphasis on students building leadership skills, learning how to develop a solid work ethic, gaining confidence, being healthy, and learning about the core values of the Navy and ways to apply them to daily life. Although these are all stellar reasons to join the program, a lot of people did it because it was the alternative to high school PE. At first, I was one of those people. The whole idea of NJROTC intimidated me; the uniform, the inspections, even the instructors. However, once I decided that this was something that I wanted to give a try, I went for it and even to this day, long after I’ve graduated, I’m glad I did. It’s funny how we think we have everything figured out. Life always has a way of barging in and forcing our perspectives to change.
The purpose of this article isn’t for me to relive my ‘glory days’ ranging from the bottom of the food chain as a cadet seaman recruit, all the way to senior year where I was a cadet lieutenant commander and second in charge of 140 cadets; I’m past those days. I’m writing this with the intent of leading up to one of the most dramatic events of my life. Granted, everything in high school is way more dramatic than it needed to be and in the spirit of integrity, I’ll freely admit that my story is no exception. However, at the time, it did indeed seem like hell was freezing over. But before we get to that, I want you all to understand me via the experiences I had with NJROTC at Harold L. Richards high school.
Other students jokingly (I hope) referred to us as a cult. A girl in my foods and nutrition class, who was dating the color guard commander at the time, said that she would never join NJROTC because “once you’re in you can’t get out. It’s like a cult!” I laughed about it with her, but inside I definitely felt some pangs of annoyance. With the exception of our rank, name tag, and ribbons, our uniforms matched to a T. After all that was the whole point; uniformity. Even then, we only wore them on Tuesdays for weekly inspection and half of the time, the ‘less dedicated’ members would then change out of their uniform at the end of the class period. Whatever. Besides that, and possibly some shared mannerisms and inside jokes, I think the term ‘cult’ was definitely reaching. Ask yourself, when you hang out with the same people six days out of the week from morning until evening, even if you don’t initially like the person, by the end of the semester you’ll no doubt know more about that person than members of your own family.
Looking back on it, I realize that we spent a ridiculous amount of time together; drill practice every morning at 7:30am, classes together throughout the day, automatic lunch-buddies, more drill practice and PT after school from 3:30pm-6pm and repeat. There were also Saturday competitions, weekend-long field trips to Great Lakes Naval Base, camping trips, and practices, workouts, and weeklong boot camp in the summer… I definitely met some of my best friends within my former NJROTC unit. As freshmen, we all suffered through condescending sophomores and juniors, were the butt of several jokes from the seniors, and at the very bottom of the food chain. It was much like having siblings that you alternately despised and idolized. Our senior naval science instructor Commander Groters was the grandfather that never seemed to age and was full of wise words. Also, our naval science instructor Chief Reynolds was the fun uncle that understood our jokes and pushed us to be better and work harder in every aspect. I don’t think there was another group of students more dedicated than us. We competed, supported, and strived to be better than the best in all areas. We competed in military drill, physical fitness, marksmanship, orienteering, academics, inspection, and individual achievements that contributed to the unit’s overall standing. We even used to say that we were tougher than the sports teams because our “season” technically didn’t end; we practiced and competed year round. So yeah, we were close and NJROTC was my life. When my (now ex) boyfriend was leaving for Marine Corps boot camp during my senior year, I actually had to think about whether or not I wanted to miss his going away party in favor of an overnight competition happening at the same time. My boyfriend was leaving for three months and I actually had to think twice. It happens. If you’re wondering, I ended up going to his party because I’m not completely heartless. He left in November of my junior year and that was around the time we were beginning to get swamped with information from guidance counselors and teachers about colleges. In addition to that, we also were privy to visits from recruiters from all different branches of the military. Of course, I, along with all of my other junior level friends, were making plans to enlist. I wanted to be a public affairs officer in the Navy. I had talked to recruiters, my parents, my friends, my instructors and they all supported me one hundred percent. I was ready for graduation in a year so I could start living my dream.
And thus enters the dramatic part. I had a doctor’s appoint and the doctor delivered some news that in an instant would change everything. I had been diagnosed with asthma when I was a child, but I had never had an attack. There were a few times during practice or workouts that I would feel one coming on, but it never quite got there. Because results from follow-up tests the doctor ran weren’t as good as he wanted them to be, I wasn’t cleared to go on with my plans.
I know to some they wouldn’t see this as a big deal, but this was my life for the past four years. I no longer had a plan, I was afraid, and suddenly feeling pressured by people now wanting to know what my next move would be. In hindsight, I see now that God had a plan for my life and I can honestly say I’m happy where I am, but in that moment, my world collapsed. My friends still enlisted and they left for boot camp around the same time I left for college. I see them twice a year for about a week each and when I graduate college, they’ll be getting discharged and starting their lives as civilians. I feel pretty fortunate that the bonds I made in NJROTC have survived high school and college and boot camp and deployments and any other thing early 20-something year olds can find themselves in the midst of. To put it in the words of Chief Reynolds, “It builds character.”