Student Soldiers

Student Soldiers

With war looming, spotlight shines on two local high school's ROTC programs.

Lisa Chatterjie, of Reston, is a self-described "flaming liberal." Tina Batt, of Herndon, is a former Navy brat and wife of a retired Army lieutenant colonel. As the nation inches ever closer to war, both women are getting increasingly anxious. Both are proud moms of local area Junior ROTC cadets. Devin Chatterjie, 17, is a junior at South Lakes High and a member of the school's Army JROTC program. Jonathan Batt, 17, is a senior at Herndon High and a former commander in the school's Naval JROTC program.

While some local high school students were marching in the recent anti-war protests in Washington, D.C., others, like Chatterjie and Batt, were marching — collars starched and shoes shined — in formation on suburban Virginia high school football fields.

Unlike collegiate ROTC programs where cadets are bound to post-graduation military service, there is no compulsory service for members of the nation's high school JROTC programs, a common misconception, cadets say. While their commitment to the program can end at any time, neither Chatterjie nor Batt shows signs of wear, and both want to pursue a career in the military. But the lack of a military commitment doesn't ease the tensions of moms, like Lisa and Tina, especially when their sons are, in great likelihood, future soldiers.

"Obviously, I worry because Devin is not the kind of person to sit back," Chatterjie said. "I know him and I know he will want to get his hands dirty. As much as you might want to, you can't hold your child back if they are set in their ways."

Even Batt's mom, who has grown up in and married into a military lifestyle, worries about the day her son may be shipped off to fight.

"The sense of duty to me is an obligation that we pay for the freedoms that we have. John understands that, but at the same time, he is my only child," Batt said. "And being a mom, you never want to see them leave the nest like that, but if it were necessary, I fully support — well, I think I do. My mother-in-law might question that."

<b>SGT. MAJOR </b>Welden Thompson, the director of the South Lakes program, said he expects his cadets to have opinions about current events and the prospect of war. More importantly, Thompson expects his cadets to express their feelings. He has used the current climate to supplement classes like military history and land navigation.

"I want them to question what's going on," Thompson said. "If they approve of what's going on, all the better, but they don't have to. My hope is that I teach them to be an active participant in democracy."

Once a week, Thompson and his Herndon High colleague, Commander Richard Cassara, order their cadets to fold up the baggy jeans and ditch the short skirts, for the clean and crisp official Navy or Army uniform. "We have high expectations for their personal responsibility," the commander said. "It's not uncommon for a teacher to let me know directly if one of my cadets was acting out in class or missing assignments. I'm the first to get that e-mail. Because of the uniforms, the other teachers know who is in ROTC and who isn't. It's not a secret."

<b>NO MATTER WHETHER </b>a cadet is brought up in a military environment or not, Cassara says his cadets are all looking to learn personal discipline and leadership skills. "That is exactly what we teach them," Cassara said. "It's not some concept in dry old book, we practice and use it all day."

Chatterjie couldn't agree more. "ROTC has been a lifesaver for Devin," his mom said. "It has given him structure. I love Sgt. Major Thompson, he has been a very positive influence on my son."

Both men, Thompson and Cassara, have clearly won over the parents of the cadets. One reason is evident: both men love their jobs, and it shows. "I have the best of both worlds," Cassara, a Naval Academy grad and a retired B-6 Bombardier pilot, said. "I get to work with kids and I am catching them right before they are truly ready to bloom."

Thompson also relishes his role as a mentor, friend and role model. "The idea for these kids is not necessarily to be in the military," he said. "The idea is for them to be successful. I've had great cadets who have ended up in art school and at West Point."

The importance of the program, according to both men, is its ability to build self-esteem, improve personal leadership qualities and discover previously untapped organizational skills. "What you learn here will help you with any endeavor in the future," said Thompson, who holds a master's degree in education.

Batt agrees. "Teachers show us a lot more respect, which is cool," the Herndon senior said. "There is, however, no goofing off, because the teacher expects you to be an example."

Cassara said that some new cadets have a hard time adjusting to the structured regimented routine that is JROTC. "It is not behavior that you can simply turn on and off," Cassara said.

Rely Rodriguez, the South Lakes principal, sees firsthand, in the halls of her Reston school, the amount of discipline and restraint it takes to be a cadet. "JROTC teaches the students a real sense of patriotism, of service and of leadership — all very important duties," Rodriguez said. "And the kids in uniform? Amazing, they just carry themselves like adults."

<b>WHILE NOT ALL</b> of their students end up in the military, Cassara and Thompson agree that their cadets typically develop a "respect" for the Armed Services and the men and women in uniform. Some like Batt group up in it, others, like Chatterjie, grow into it.

"If you had told me 30 years ago that I was going to have a kid in ROTC, I would have said, 'Over my dead body,'" she said. "I was too busy protesting the war."

Though he says he has never done a survey, Cassara estimates that, like Batt, between 25 and 35 percent of his class comes from a military background. Despite the commander's not-so-subtle allegiance and his ties to all things Navy, Batt, much to the delight of his dad, has his eyes trained on the Army, and West Point.

"No matter how hard I try," jokes Cassara, the Navy man, "some of them just want to sleep in the dirt."

Also interested in the Army, Chatterjie, hopes to attend the Virginia Military Institute after he graduates next Spring. Ultimately, he wants to join the elite Special Forces.

"ROTC has given Devin something to shoot for," his mom said. "It won't be easy, but then I guess it shouldn't be."