Being all they can be: U.S. Army JROTC builds leadership skills and confidence

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Lincoln Park High School U.S. Army JROTC Cadet Lt. Col. Brittani Byers (right), a 17-year-old senior, works with Cadet Capt. Melissa LaBounty (left), a 17-year-old junior, Cadet Lt. Col. Ramiro Rivera IV, a 17-year-old senior and Cadet Master Sgt. Nicholas Orman, a 16-year-old sophomore.

Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK – The glittery gold eye shadow aspiring cosmetologist and Cadet Sgt. 1st Class Samantha Lopez, a 15-year-old sophomore, wears with her tailored Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps uniform is as complementary and unexpected as the life lessons she said the military program has instilled.

“It’s shown me a lot about everything – about high school, about life and how to treat others.”

The JROTC leadership education and training program at Lincoln Park High School, run by the U.S. Army, is designed to develop good citizenship and patriotism, self-reliance, leadership and team-building skills. It also promotes public speaking, written communication skills, physical fitness, and teaches U.S. military history.

Commander Sgt. Maj. Garrett Menzies has seen the program, whose Lincoln Park High School chapter started in 1996, grow from 110 to 180 cadets since he arrived in 2008 after working with the Detroit Public Schools.

“I didn’t build it up,” Menzies said. “They did the work; I just guided them along a little bit.”

Cadet Capt. Melissa LaBounty, a 17-year-old junior, said she has taught classes covering first aid, alcohol and drug abuse education, and emotion and anger management to fellow cadets, passing on to underclassmen what she previously learned from upperclassmen.

LaBounty first heard about JROTC as a sixth grader when her older sister started high school, and knew she wanted to be in the program someday.

She said she hopes to be the fourth generation in her family to go in the Army.

“I’m the first girl so they don’t believe I can do it,” she said. “I’ve wanted to do it my whole life; I knew… since third grade. It’s my life.”

She said the leadership training appeals to her the most.

“This class teaches you to be a better leader and a follower at the same time,” LaBounty said. “So you can listen to people and you can tell them how to do it – you can teach.”

She said she is now able to open up in public and give a speech without stuttering.

“In my whole life, I have always been the shy girl that didn’t want to talk to anybody, sat in the back of class and just hoped the teacher didn’t call on me,” LaBounty said. “I was extremely awkward and now… I can be social.”

She said some boys are intimidated by a “woman in uniform.”

“They figure that I’m going to be loud and bossy when I am actually the exact opposite,” she said. “I can be loud in the Army – in this class I am one of the loudest people here. But when I’m outside I’m just a normal person. It’s an everyday thing.”

She wants to continue with ROTC in college, and would like to study nursing at the University of Michigan – Dearborn.

Cadet Lt. Col. Brittani Byers, a 17-year-old senior, also hopes to continue with ROTC in college as she studies to become a high school math teacher.

Unlike LaBounty, who knew she wanted to be in JROTC, Byers said her mother forced her into the program during her freshman year.

“After a semester or so I realized that I loved it and I have been completely and utterly involved in this program for the last three years,” Byers said. “I needed the discipline and it has changed me dramatically since.”

Byers is involved with the drill and academic teams, and said the JROTC students are “like a family… we’re basically inseparable.”

In addition to helping her overcome her shyness, she said she tells relatives that the program “gives you more incentive to do better… if you do better you get better.”

Cadet Maj. Michael Ocasio, a 17-year-old senior who is active with the honor guard, said JROTC has helped him become a better person by helping him focus and overcome procrastination.

“When I first came into high school I was a procrastinator; I was the guy that if you told us, oh, we got a hundred-million point project, I would do it the day or night before and I’d stay up all night doing it.”

He said JROTC has made him a more responsible person and has also helped him learn to focus. Fellow cadets have tutored him in math during designated class time.

“I’ve always struggled with math; I’ve had kids here that have helped me with it.”

Menzies said the JROTC students at Lincoln Park High School have a higher graduation rate than the school at large.

“The GPAs in JROTC has always been higher than the non-cadets,” Menzies said. “It’s a benefit to be here.”

He said the information is also used to justify the extra funding every year, and added that there are over 275 schools in line to get JROTC programs right now, “but there’s just not enough funding to go around.”

Tutoring has also helped Cadet Master Sgt. Nicholas Orman, a 16-year-old sophomore.

“I’ve never been good at like science or anything like that so the JROTC tutoring program has helped me improve in that area,” Orman said.

He said the physical training component of the JROTC training has also helped him become stronger. He enjoys physical training competitions, and said he is best at doing sit-ups and has become stronger since being part of this group.

The real value of JROTC to him, however, is that it makes him a better leader.

He said he wants to join the Army when he gets out of high school, but is quick to add that recruitment is not the goal of JROTC.

“It’s just a way to motivate people to be better citizens and to teach them leadership,” Orman said.

Like Orman, Cadet Master Sgt. Justin Stigall, a 16-year-old junior, wants to enlist in the military after high school graduation.

“My family’s been in the military all the way back to the Civil War – every generation has,” Stigall said.

In addition to gaining leadership skills, he is active in drill team and honor guard, and was proud to be part of a televised honor guard detail at Grace Greater Temple during a military recognition day last November.

Menzies said his group is special because they are so positive.

“I just ask them to do the best that they can, and they try really hard,” he said. “They treat each other with respect… They have fun. They teach the classes… I’m in here to kind of guide them along.”