The whole purpose of the Marine Corps service uniform is to blend into the background. The brown, beige and olive green pattern is called camouflage for a reason. The outfit makes it difficult to distinguish the troops from foliage in the forest or sand dunes in the desert.
The uniform, however, doesn't provide much cover in the Mount Vernon High School cafeteria. Members of the school's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) are easy to spot in a sea of students wearing t-shirts and blue jeans.
The high school cadets must wear the uniform — tan work boots and fatigues — to school once a week.
"No one really makes fun of you or anything because there are a lot of other kids with uniforms on," said sophomore Nicole Gailliot, who is in the program.
At a time when the military is struggling to find new recruits, Mount Vernon's JROTC is booming with 128 participants, the largest ROTC program of any kind in Fairfax County.
"We try not to go above 150 students. We started out the year with 140 students but this is a very transient school. School goes through a 35 percent turnover every school year," said the program's director Col. Walter DeHoust.
DeHoust said his JROTC Marine Corps program is not a venue for military recruitment, though several students are interested in serving in the armed forces.
"We are not recruiters. We are not trying to influence our cadets to join the military," said DeHoust, who started JROTC at Mount Vernon 12 years ago. JROTC focuses on personal discipline and leadership skills, not on enlisting students, he said.
Still, parts of DeHoust's class played like a scene from a military movie.
TWO BABY-FACED CADETS quizzed each other on Marine Corps trivia as class started last Thursday. A few minutes later, they were standing on line for uniform inspection and their superior officer was bombarding them with questions.
"Who is the secretary of the Navy?"
"What is the Marine Corps emblem?"
The students, spine straight and fists clenched, were lined up in tidy rows. They didn't speak unless spoken to and answered questions as their platoon leader, senior Katie Newman, adjusted their hats and checked their boots for mud.
Newman, who is waiting to hear whether she was admitted to the Naval Academy, has come a long way from the days when she was told to clean her room, said her mother Margaret Newman.
"When she is with her ROTC unit, everything has to be spit and polished. She is very disciplined. They have to have inspection. Everything has to be right," said her mother.
Newman said she is one of only a few female JROTC student leaders in Fairfax County this year, but DeHoust said 40 percent of the people in his program are girls.
"They tend to do better than the guys at first. They mature
earlier," he said.
The responsibility and discipline is what attracts many students to the program.
"I like the fact that a lot of the lessons the students teach. You learn a lot when you teach," said senior Anthony LeCounte.
LeCounte, said he initially joined JROTC because his father was serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq at the time he started Mount Vernon.
"He would have preferred me to be in the Army JROTC but we both got over it," said the smiling student, who will attend Yale University next fall and doesn't think he will participate in ROTC in college.
There are several students like LeCounte who aren't interested in a military career but are curious about the JROTC curriculum.
"The push-ups, sit-ups and running — that is my favorite part. I don't think I will do it all four years but I like a lot right now," said sophomore Damon Smith.
LeCounte's sister Antoinese, who is also in the program, said she hopes JROTC will help her get into the Naval Academy. Her dream is to become an astronaut, she said.
"My whole family thinks that girls should be cheerleaders but I think women should do something. I want to do something beyond myself," said Antoinese.
In addition to classroom work, students in JROTC can participate in several co-curricular activities with the program.
Mount Vernon has its own military color guard, a drill team and a marksmanship team. For the past three years, Newman said she has spent almost every afternoon in the JROTC classroom before going to sports practice.
JROTC offered Newman a chance to take classes outside of Mount Vernon's International Baccalaureate program.
"It brings kids from all over the school together. There is no one type of person here. If I wasn't in JROTC, I probably wouldn't know anyone outside of the full IB program," said Newman.
JROTC is also taught across grade levels, with seniors and freshman assigned to the same section, she said. Students are also encouraged to tutor other cadets who might be having problems in school.
Like many other students, Newman said she initially signed up because of an interest in the military — a prospect that makes her mother slightly nervous.
"I do have a lot of pride in the fact that she is willing to do this for her country. If we weren't in a war, it would be even better," said Margaret Newman.