When Mary Magrogan first enrolled in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at South Lakes High School, she was a quiet, unassuming teenage girl.
Now, when Magrogan barks, the cadre of freshmen cadets under her command hustle to follow her orders.
“She takes charge,” said Sgt. 1st Class Sean Keating, Magrogan’s instructor. “You don’t even have to ask. She keeps everyone in line.”
Magrogan, a 16-year-old sophomore, is one of a handful of female cadets enrolled in the JROTC program whose life has been changed by the discipline and leadership skills the program seeks to impart.
“There aren’t many girls (in JROTC),” she said. “But as long as you show that you’re always trying your best, you get respect.”
Magrogan and other girls in JROTC tend to glean more of those skills than their male classmates, said Sgt. Major Weldon Thompson, who has directed the South Lakes JROTC program for nine years.
Girls enrolled in JROTC, as opposed to many of the boys, often feel they must to disprove the stereotypes that they are weaker, inferior leaders and indecisive. Overcoming these hurdles empowers the girls, Thompson said, earning them the respect of their peers and causing them to be walk taller and work harder.
“These young ladies are hungry for the opportunity to lead,” Thompson said. “They outperform the males.”
The program at South Lakes is roughly 70 percent male, but the female cadets form a small, cohesive group. A high percentage of the most exemplary leaders the program has produced over the years have been female, Thompson said.
“This program helps them to say, ‘You know what? If I want to be the president of the United States, I can do that,” he said.
COURTNEY HAWES, another 16-year-old student enrolled in the program at South Lakes, said JROTC has made her more conscious of the way she presents herself and has given her more self confidence.
“When I first came here, I had to learn how to stand without twitching and how to speak in public,” she said last week in the South Lakes JROTC classroom.
Every Friday — PT day — Hawes helps lead groups of freshmen through the training. Sometimes they’ll do jumping jacks, push-ups, or run around the track while calling out cadences.
Hawes also helps teach the freshmen how to march in formation and to drill. The JROTC program relies on students to oversee the younger cadets in the interest of teaching responsibility and respect for authority.
“It’s up to us to show them what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong,” she said.
CONTRARY TO POPULAR belief, JROTC is not intended to be a primer course for high school students on their way to military careers. Rather, the program was developed to develop leaders and to instill a sense of civic responsibility.
Several of the girls, such as Magrogan, who are enrolled in the South Lakes program do plan on continuing their training in the armed forces. But in a general sense, instructors simply want to give the girls skills to succeed in the private sector.
“These skills can be exported to Microsoft, IBM, Exxon Mobil, you name it,” Thompson said. “These skills will serve them for the rest of their lives.”
The program is also helping to open traditionally closed doors for women in the fields of engineering, computer science, and in the military, Thompson said.
The inclusion of females in the program also benefits males, Thompson said, because it helps teach them how to solve problems differently and the value of finding consensus.
“Females tend to think before they act, whereas we males tend to act before we think,” he said.
LAST SUMMER, Magrogan attended a boot camp-style program at Fort A.P. Hill for high school students enrolled in JROTC programs from across Virginia and surrounding states.
When it came time for the cadets to get through the base’s obstacle course, Magrogan, through sheer force of will and determination, beat all the males she was competing against.
“You’re trying to disprove those stereotypes,” she said. “We’re not weaker. Girls can be strong and they can be leaders too.”
Keating, one of Magrogan’s instructors, who transferred to the South Lakes program from Fishburne Military School this year, agreed.
“When I came here last fall, I thought ‘On no, females.,’” he said. “But now I realize they’re the highlight of this school. They’re the highlight of this program. Good bunch of ladies.”