ERNIE BROWN JR. Rayen's JROTC makes teens better Americans
The nearly dozen students dressed in military uniforms had the titles of major, sergeant first class, sergeant and lieutenant colonel.
Only one of them, however, plans to enter the armed forces after leaving high school.
The one goal they all share is to be better students and better citizens.
The students are members of The Rayen School's Army Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps Program, the only one of its kind in the Mahoning Valley.
Under the tutelage of Army instructors 1st Sgt. Charles Sutton and Sgt. 1st Class John Ayers, both retired from active military service, the students say their stint in the JROTC program has taught them discipline, improved their self-esteem and encouraged them to work hard to achieve their future goals.
The JROTC program began in this country in 1916 with the passage of the National Defense Act. The mission then, as now, is to motivate young people to become better Americans. The program began at Rayen nearly seven years ago and is the only Army JROTC program south of Cleveland and east of Akron.
Sutton, a 1968 Rayen graduate, said the JROTC is not "a feeding ground for the military."
"Only one in five or six students will go on to the military, & quot; he said. "We teach the principles of citizenship, leadership and positive options as a way to avoid the negative obstacles."
The students were honored at a recent awards banquet, which was attended by armed forces and veterans group representatives. Some of them talked about the program's importance and how it has changed their lives.
For Sgt. Christina O'Meara, a sophomore, and PFC Brittany Jackson, a freshman, JROTC kept them from heading down a troublesome path.
"I got kicked out of school," said O'Meara, who has been in the program one year. "My mother and grandpa were both in the military, and they suggested I try it. It has been a good, positive experience."
Jackson, who has been in JROTC for a semester, said she was getting "into a lot of trouble, but the program has really helped me out. I would recommend it to anyone."
Staff Sgt. Joshua Allen has been in the program two years. It has taught him how to be a leader and how to cooperate with and respect others.
Maj. Jerome Higgs, a junior and three-year JROTC member, said his brother preceded him in the program and encouraged him to try it. He said he wants to seek a military career after he graduates.
Lt. Col. Bonnie Belanger, a senior who began JROTC as a freshman, said she has gained more confidence in herself and has become more disciplined. "I would probably be messed up by now if not for the program," she added.
Maj. Jessica Nolen, another senior and four-year member, said JROTC has instilled in her a discipline to make wise choices and more positive decisions. She plans to go to on to college.
All the students said they love the field trips. They have gone to Kentucky to participate in color guard competitions. They have visited and will visit again the Air Reserve Station in Vienna Township to see the C-130 military aircraft.
Academics are stressed -- the students are in the top 10 percent of their class in overall academic standings -- and they must give back to the community they serve.
JROTC members work with VFW Post 6488 in Youngstown to help maintain Mount Hope Veterans Memorial Park Cemetery on the city's East Side.
They also are involved in Rayen's PSI, or (Postponing Sexual Involvement) Mentor Program, which sends high school students to middle and elementary schools to address the subjects of peer pressure, drug and alcohol abuse, and premarital sex.
The JROTC program recently received a 100 percent inspection report for the period of August 2001 to March 31 of this year.
Ayers, in his third year as JROTC instructor, and a 22-year Army veteran, said a critical area for the students is planning for the future.
"Most students live for today. They don't think about their future. That's what we try to do here -- encourage our students to have dreams and plan to achieve them. We also give them a lot of positive input."
Sutton adds he is starting a JROTC booster club that would allow adults to chaperon the students on field trips and help supervise other activities.