The Lake Mary High JROTC program is growing strong, and its cadets are forging their own paths to success
Lake Mary High School junior Kaleb Clark can twirl a heavy rifle so effortlessly it looks as light as a Popsicle stick.
He also draws a puzzled look among some friends when he talks about coming in the hatch and drinking from the scuttle-butt.
That’s life for the cadets of LMHS’s Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) program, where teens like Kaleb revel in a highly structured but tight-as-a-drum community that some compare to family.
The program has grown significantly, both in size and accomplishments, in a short amount of time. It has doubled from 100 to about 200 cadets in just two years. It has added a highly coveted aviation program, complete with drone training. And, for the first time in almost a decade, Lake Mary High cadets qualified for the JROTC state competition this spring in such endeavors as physical fitness, academics, relays, and rifle exhibition. In fact, the Navy named the LMHS program the most improved unit in the nation last year.
“It’s a really big step in the right direction,” says Lieutenant Colonel Skip Barth, senior naval science instructor with the program. “It’s been kind of a dry spell.”
Not all cadets complete four years of JROTC training. Some find out almost immediately that JROTC is not for them, says Col. Barth, a retired Marine. But others become hooked from the get-go.
Kaleb, whose grandfather served in the Korean War, has been involved with JROTC since he was a sixth grader at Greenwood Lakes Middle. He is so used to talking military lingo (where a door is a hatch, and a water fountain is a scuttle-butt) that he sometimes forgets to adjust in conversations with civilians.
“It becomes second nature,” grins the 17-year-old Kaleb. “I’ll say something about the deck. And my friends will say, ‘Do you mean the floor?’ And I’ll say, ‘yeah.’”
Bryant Dunn, an 18-year-old senior who serves as the commanding officer of the Lake Mary High JROTC cadets, recalls playing with toy soldiers as a little boy.
“I was made for the military,” Bryant says. He describes himself as “infatuated” with JROTC and its service-oriented ethos and refers to fellow cadets as his second family.
“I fell in love with the structure,” says Bryant. “I was hooked instantly.”
Many factors play into an attraction to JROTC, Col. Barth says. Some kids have families with a strong military tradition. Some come from broken homes or perhaps lacked a strong father figure growing up. Col. Barth’s own parents divorced, he says, and he recalls moving frequently while in school.
“JROTC was the one thing that kept me grounded,” says Col. Barth.
While the Navy in NJROTC is obviously associated with the sea, it is the JROTC’s relatively new aviation program, under Chief Petty Officer Craig Daniels, that is responsible for much of the Lake Mary High program’s recent growth.
The aviation program is a partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and the renowned flight school provides Lake Mary High with curriculum, textbooks, computer programs, and other resources. But the most compelling fruit of the Embry-Riddle partnership is a fleet of small, pricey, and sophisticated drones. Although often associated with recent military strategy, drones have a number of commercial uses, from checking on the status of power lines to helping realtors scout and market homes for sale. As part of Lake Mary High’s JROTC program, a cadet can become certified as a drone pilot before even graduating from high school, Col. Barth says.
With First Sergeant Jordan Martin rounding out the LMHS instructional team, Col. Barth sees nothing but growth in the years ahead. He imagines 250 or even 300 cadets, and he predicts repeated visits to the state competition.
While NJROTC is many things to many people, the colonel wants to make clear one thing the program and others like it is not: a recruiting tool.
Kaleb and Bryant do aspire to military careers, but grooming future officers is not the end game here. There is no expectation that cadets will wind up in the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard.
For the JROTC cadets, mastering a rifle, a drone, or a drill move is just as important as manning the concession stand at football games and staffing an emergency shelter after a bad storm. It’s all about service in the LMHS JROTC.
“We are concerned with getting them to be responsible adults,” Col. Barth says. “We work on leadership and citizenship – not recruiting.”
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Once out of high school, these young men and women will find a world full of open hatches, each with a new opportunity for them to explore.