Less than seven months ago, the South Lakes High School JROTC program looked as if it was about to be honorably discharged after eight years at the Reston school. To the relief of last year’s class of 86 cadets, the program was spared with a last second reprieve. Having survived that scare, Sgt. Major Weldon Thompson is now concentrating on rejuvenating his program with the help of another fellow retired Army sergeant, Sean Keating.
Keating, who grew up in Reston and graduated from Herndon High School in 1979, is returning to his Northern Virginia roots to help Thompson lead a group of young men and women in the South Lakes JROTC program.
Last year, Keating was teaching at the 200-student Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Va., just outside of Stanton, Va., when he was reading a JROTC Web site that lists all the vacancies in programs across the country. "I was being nosy one day when I noticed that South Lakes had an opening," Keating said. "Being raised in Reston, I watched this school get built. I immediately called my wife and told her that there was an opening at South Lakes.’"
Almost immediately, Keating brought his résumé and credentials to the attention of Thompson. At the same time, Thompson, thinking his program might be cut at the end of the school year, was dusting off his own résumé, and beginning to prepare for the possibility he would have to leave the program that he founded in 1995.
According to the Army’s mandatory guidelines, JROTC programs must have a minimum of 100 cadets. In April, as Keating was applying to the instructor position, there were only 86 students. In addition, the Army requires at least two instructors. South Lakes’ second instructor Lisa Mullin left the school during the first few weeks of school. As Keating applied to fill Mullin’s seat, he didn’t realize that the program, which he wanted to work for, might be forced to shut down.
"I had an interview set up, then suddenly the Sgt. Major called me back and said that at this time the principal wasn’t hiring," Keating said. "He said he was sorry, but the principal just couldn’t do it at this time."
Keating let Thompson know that he was very interested in the position. "Please, keep me in mind if anything changes," he remembers telling Thompson. "When I heard the hiring had been postponed, I just figured that [Thompson] had found somebody else."
The sudden uncertainty was disappointing, said Keating. "Being raised in Reston and living here since 1974, this was a dream come true," he said. "Plus, my family was up here and I was living down in Stanton."
IN THE MEANTIME, Thompson and principal Realista "Rely" Rodriquez worked behind the scenes, along with county officials, to salvage the South Lakes JROTC. On April 23, one day after Thompson broke the news to his top cadets, Rodriguez announced the program would stay. Thompson and Rodriguez promised to step up recruiting efforts to bump up the program’s numbers. Their efforts paid off, there are 101 cadets enrolled this school year, including 29 first-year cadets.
Thompson is relieved to have that period of uncertainty behind him and he was quick to praise the work of his principal in saving the program. "I’m just happy to be able to concentrate my energies fully on teaching the finest student cadets that this country has to offer," Thompson said. "Everything from last year to this year has been made possible with the support of Mrs. Rodriguez. We wouldn’t be here today without her leadership and support."
While school officials scrambled to save the program, Keating waited. Luckily, for him, he didn’t have to wait too long. A week after the disappointment, Thompson called Keating back on a Wednesday. Keating was in Reston the next day. The next day, Friday, Keating got the good news, not from Thompson, but from the other candidate for the position. Both candidates were at a color guard drill meet, when Keating received a congratulatory handshake from his competition. "To say the least, I was happy," he said. "I was happy to be coming home. And so far, it has been everything I could have hoped for, and more."
Thompson said Keating was a tremendous candidate and never doubted that he would be an equally great teacher and role model. "He’s an individual of high quality and it has been great to have him here," Thompson said.
Coming aboard after last year’s troubles instills an even more profound sense of purpose for Keating. "It feels good, because I feel I can make a difference. I can come in here and help Sgt. Major Thompson get the program back to where it’s supposed to be and get the kids back interested and the community back into it," he said. "We want to show the school that this program belongs."
KEATING SAYS the homecoming has been smooth. After a year at a private all-male boarding school, there have been some adjustments, he admitted. "At Fishburne, we got the kids all day for six periods," he said. "Here, we only get them for two periods a day. So life is good."
Working with female cadets has been a very positive "eye-opening experience" for Keating, accustomed to the all-male military academy. "It’s different. The females here are so impressive. They are all so hard charging. It’s not a male versus female thing, it’s just that they know that they can do anything the guys can do and they are ready to prove it," he said. "I’ve enjoyed it."
The second-year instructor said his first year of teaching was a great learning experience for him. "They taught me well down there and really showed me the ropes," he said.
And while Keating’s experience at Fishburne was invaluable, he had his eye on the South Lakes position since he first decided to try his hand at teaching. In 1999, one year before his retirement, Keating, then living in Ft. Hood, Texas, turned to his wife, Lisa, a fellow Herndon High alum, and asked, "Wouldn’t it be really great if I landed at South Lakes High School?"
Herndon High School’s JROTC program is affiliated with the U.S. Navy, while South Lakes is Army. For a former Reston resident, Herndon High graduate and retired Army sergeant, there was no question that South Lakes was his dream job.
Four years later, Keating’s dream came true. With four kids, ranging in age from 15 months to 8 years, the Keating’s are happy to be back home in Northern Virginia. "I don’t think I have been this happy in a long time," he said. "I am so proud to be here at South Lakes to help restore it to where it is supposed to be. We will get it back to where it needs to be."
Rodriguez praised Keating as a "hands-on type of guy" who has moved into his new role extremely smoothly. "He likes to be with the kids and they love being around him, that is obvious," the principal said. "He gets things done and he is always quick to volunteer to do anything for the school."
The relationship between Thompson and Keating has been fun to watch, said Rodriguez, who calls the two retired Army sergeants, "Salt and Pepper." "They get along so well and that relationship just flows into the program."
WHILE HE SAYS a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t miss the Army, JROTC helps fills that void. "I did 21 years, but I had to cut ties and go on to something else," he said.
Keating says he is in it for the long haul. "I’m not going to have another job, this is it," he said.
That something else was teaching and Thompson says Keating is a natural. "His experience is fantastic and the kids have really responded to the sergeant," Thompson said. "His knowledge from being from around here and seeing the growth in this community and its rich diversity is something that I could not bring to the table. It’s invaluable. You just can’t beat that."
There are some students that need a little direction and responsibility and that is what JROTC provides, Keating said. Since September, Keating has enjoyed watching the students gain self-confidence, a sense of responsibility and self-respect because of their participation in JROTC. "I want to be a mentor to these kids. I want to be somebody that they feel they can talk to — a role model and a big brother," Keating said, of his role. "I want them to feel like they can come talk to me about anything. I was there, I can relate to their problems."
Jessica Lazu, a junior cadet, thinks Keating’s addition, besides helping to save the program, has been a very positive one. "He’s an all-around good guy. He’s a teacher and a friend and he has already helped us a lot," said Lazu, who has been with the South Lakes program for three years.
Alexandra Sawyer, another cadet, credits her new instructor with helping to restore some normalcy to a program that almost came to an abrupt end last spring. "After the threat of last year, Sgt. Keating has helped us get back on track," she said. "He’s been great."