Most Kennewick High School students, wanting to avoid the cold last week, stayed inside the school as they waited for rides home after classes.
Members of the school’s fledgling Air Force JROTC drill team, on the other hand, were out practicing, wearing only their blue uniforms and maybe a regulation trench coat or jacket.
“It’s taking shape, there’s a form there,” said Lt. Col. Curtis Wichers, the unit’s lead instructor and officer, as he watched the students. Some fumbled with their training rifles or dropped their hat as they went through a routine.
Most of the new program’s roughly 75 cadets are freshmen and sophomores. Some are from rough backgrounds or broken homes and many have had little involvement in extracurricular activities, school officials said.
But JROTC has created a new niche at the school, administrators and students said — one where students who may have felt left out can thrive.
“I came in thinking ‘I’m at the bottom of the totem pole,’ but I began getting leadership positions,” said freshman and drill team commander Wesley Banks, 14. “It’s helped me transition really well.”
Getting the program started
School officials, Principal Van Cummings in particular, began pursuing a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, or JROTC, unit in early 2013, securing a sponsorship from the U.S. Air Force a year ago.
Such programs are offered by branches of the armed forces to prepare high school students for future military service, either as officers or enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines.
The district is responsible for providing some benefits and 25 percent of the salaries of two retired military personnel — one commissioned officer and one noncommissioned officer — who teach and lead the program. Other expenses, including classroom materials, are covered by the federal government.
Wichers recently retired from the Air Force after 20 years as a helicopter pilot and pursued the commanding officer position with the program, as his wife is from Pasco.
JROTC programs fall under career and technical education. High school students who become cadets are issued uniforms, participate in military training and learn military history along with citizenship and leadership.
They aren’t required to join the military after high school, but the armed forces often offer incentives — such as accelerated promotion — to those with JROTC experience. About half of the students in the Kennewick High program are planning on a military career, Wichers said.
Getting the program up and running has been a gauntlet of sorts. Wichers underwent some basic teacher training and will continue to do so for the next two years. JROTC programs typically have two staffers, but Wichers is on his own at the moment; the school has yet to find a qualified non-commissioned officer.
There’s $50,000 of new gear to manage, such as training rifles for drill exercises and equipment for physical training, along with academic materials and dozens of dress and training uniforms.
There’s also been a need for some public relations — the district recently sent out a press release notifying residents that rifles used by cadets on school grounds are fake and not real.
But the student cadets have really taken to the program, Wichers said.
“Just putting on the uniform, you can see an instant change,” he said.
‘They change a lot’
Sergio Contreras, 18, a senior who serves as cadet colonel, had trouble in school his sophomore year, he said. He voluntarily attended Washington Youth Academy, a program for at-risk youth operated by the National Guard outside Bremerton. It stoked his interest in a military career and he lobbied for a JROTC unit.
Now he’s the senior-ranking cadet in the Kennewick High program and says he and others are gaining a lot from the experience.
“I think this is good, it gives (students) a small insight into what the military is like,” Sergio said.
That’s experience Wesley wants, as he is planning to seek an appointment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado after high school. If that doesn’t pan out, there’s always the ROTC unit at Washington State University at Pullman, he said.
The social aspect of the Kennewick High unit, however, has also been a big plus. Wesley’s fascination with drill has led him to research routines and moves on his own and incorporate them into the unit’s drill team maneuvers. The team practices after school a few times a week.
“It’s just been really fun,” he said. “The people who come after (class), we’re all friends,” he said.
Sophomore Yesenia Jara, 16, also is interested in a military career and leaped at the program’s leadership opportunities.
“On my first day, they asked if anyone wanted to be a flight commander (of a class),” she said. “I raised my hand and they chose me.”
Being a leader was rough at first. Most of the cadets are boys. Some were disrespectful toward her, largely because she’s a girl, but that’s changed, she said.
“Those who join JROTC, they change a lot,” she said.
Keeping the unit going
Staff and other students have seen the transformation, too, particularly when cadets wear their uniforms on Wednesdays, Cummings said.
“It’s another place where they can find a home with other students of like interest,” he said.
The program’s continued existence isn’t guaranteed — the unit must have 100 cadets or more by its third year for the federal government to continue paying for it.
But school officials and students aren’t worried. There’s always a new student asking about it, such as the River View High School student who approached Wichers and asked about transferring as the drill team practiced.
“I just love the military, it’s great,” the student said.