Ten years ago, students interested in an ROTC program at either of the Mount Vernon high schools were out of luck. Now, both Mount Vernon and West Potomac have thriving programs, as do Hayfield, Edison and Springfield High Schools.
ROTC, or Reserve Officer Training Corps, has been around since 1916 when the Army introduced the program in colleges and universities as part of the National Defense Act of 1916.
Thirty Junior ROTC programs were established and soon high schools started embracing the program by initiating junior ROTC programs. Now students all over the country can enjoy this as one of their yearly electives.
West Potomac started an Army ROTC program in 1994, while Mount Vernon has offered a Marine Corps ROTC program since 1995.
It's not for every student and some who try it will quickly realize that they don't like it and switch out. But for those who take to it tend to embrace the whole concept.
That can be illustrated by stopping by the ROTC room at Mount Vernon High School after school. While many students can't wait to leave the premises, many of the ROTC students are still there. Some are practicing for drill team, others for color guard. And then some are just there, talking to Colonel Walt DeHoust, the senior Marine instructor, or 1st Sergeant Willie Medley. DeHoust was hired to head the program when it started in 1995. A few students had expressed interest in such a program in prior years. Initially, they were sent to West Potomac so that they could participate, and then Mount Vernon applied to the Marine Corps for the program which was approved for the 1995 school year.
THIS YEAR Mount Vernon has more than 150 ROTC students and DeHoust said that they are expecting about 175 next year. There are currently three first-year classes, two second-year and one third-year. Fourth-year students assist with the first-year classes. They could use a third instructor, but DeHoust doesn't think that the budget will allow for it.
It's a great deal for Fairfax County. All the schools have to do is provide the space.
The Marine Corps and Army pick up most of the tab for the programs at Mount Vernon and West Potomac, paying for uniforms, shoes, medals, textbooks and half the instructors’ salaries. Instructors come with a wealth of experience. DeHoust has a degree in history while Medley has degrees in criminology and sociology. Instructors are very much a part of the school, involved in coaching the color guard and rifle teams after school, as well as doing some coaching.
ARE THE STUDENTS joining because they have a quest for patriotism? Maybe, or perhaps it satisfies a simpler need — the student's need for structure and discipline. It also might just be a little fun.
"Most kids in the program are looking for structure and discipline," said DeHoust. "A few are parent-driven and some don't like it. However, most are here because they want to be." Medley said that for every student who drops out there is another one on the waiting list.
"It's fun because you have regular classes and learn new and interesting topics," said John Earley.
"This guy [Col. DeHoust] is pretty cool. He doesn't give us any homework," said John Harley.
Jeff McCormick said, "I learned how to be a leader. I like the discipline in the program and they treat me like family."
Military service is in Alfred Ellerbee's family. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the Army. He's hoping to get a ROTC scholarship for college and then join as an officer.
Sonia Toro-Valles said, "I like the discipline, and how we are all different. All ethnic groups come together."
All of these students are in their second year in the ROTC program at Mount Vernon and indeed, the students do come from all cross-sections. There is a mix of male and female students, and many ethnic groups are represented. First Sergeant Willie Medley, who works with the first and fourth-year students, said, "We have a good crop of kids, some are IB students while others are at-risk."
Medley believes ROTC is for "anybody who has a desire to find out what he/she is all about. "It challenges them and makes them step up to the plate," he said.
Students take ROTC as an elective course and get credit, just like any other course. They wear their uniforms once a week for inspection, which is done by the instructors and junior officers.
Justin Hughes serves as the platoon commander for the second year class and is responsible for doing the inspections before the Colonel gets there. He will check to see that the ribbons are in the right place; the cadets have the right hair style; the uniforms are cleaned and pressed; and shoes polished.
BOTH SCHOOLS ARE frequently asked to participate in community events to provide a drill team and color guard, among other things. Medley said that they recently laid wreaths and escorted dignitaries for the 12th Annual Tribute of the Gulf War at Arlington Cemetery. Mount Vernon will participate in a celebration at Gum Springs in June, while West Potomac laid flags at Mount Comfort Cemetery for Memorial Day.
Two weeks ago Mount Vernon and West Potomac ROTC students participated in Mount Vernon Community Days. These events are voluntary and attended by students who are available.
About 30 West Potomac students assembled at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church before the parade last week. Several of them were a little bleary eyed after having been at an all-night bowling party the night before. Yet, they were committed to being there.
Their reasons for joining are similar to those students from Mount Vernon. Vitya Nginn joined the program because, "I thought it was interesting, and I wanted to help others. I like the discipline, responsibility and leadership."
Andy Darrough thinks it's fun and Chanel Graham said that she would recommend the program. Tamria Rhodes is also enthusiastic about the program. When her friends ask her why she isn't doing track or cheerleading, she responds by saying, "This is what I love."
"It's another venue for the students," said Cernata Morse, parent liaison at West Potomac High School. "It builds better character and a better person. They have high standards; students that don't meet those standards are dismissed."
Major Easter is the senior instructor at West Potomac, assisted by 1st Sergeant Dennis Tucker and 1st Sergeant Lang. Tucker retired after 20 years of military service and worked with the ROTC program at MIT. He knew he was going to retire in this area and applied for a position with the program that was just starting at West Potomac.
"I wanted to work with kids, because if I had somebody to work with [when I was younger], it would have helped me," said Tucker. "We try to reach out to the kids and help them make decisions, try to get them to focus on grades."
Both Tucker and DeHoust said that they don't force students to go into the military. DeHoust said that going into the military right after high school should be their last choice. He encourages all the students to go to college, and then they can decide if they want to go into the service. If the eight junior ROTC students from West Potomac who answered the Gazette's weekly Viewpoint question, "What are your plans for the future?" are any indication, then the program does work. All eight students had well thought-out answers about their plans for school and careers.
Tucker said that he will guide the students into different branches of the service, depending on what they're looking for.
Lang said, "I wanted to make a difference in kids' lives. There's a satisfaction of seeing them mature."
For Tucker, the biggest satisfaction comes from when former students come back and say how much Junior ROTC has impacted their lives.