The Surge in Junior ROTC

April 1, 2000

Does the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps teach young people good citizenship and personal responsibility, as backers claim? Or does it, as critics claim, squander educational funds and divert young people into unproductive occupations

Such questions were the focus of a recent study of JROTC by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The CSIS Political-Military Studies Project on the JROTC reached a firm conclusion: JROTC benefits both the nation’s youth and their communities. Still, the report said that the services should be sensitive to local concerns about weapons on school property and funding.

For the Air Force, the immediate problem comes down to finding more American high schools interested in the program and then recruiting enough retirees to serve as instructors.

Congress recently voted funds to expand the number of AFJROTC units over the next six years from 609 today to 945. It won’t be easy, conceded Lt. Col. Jimmie N. Varnado, chief of the AFJROTC branch at Air University’s Air Force Officer Accession and Training Schools.

“We have about 189 [schools] on the waiting list,” said Varnado, “and have letters out offering contracts to some. Others are waiting for site surveys to make sure they have space for classrooms, offices, storage, and drill practice.”

The waiting list should take the Air Force through the first year or two of expansion, he said. Then, it will have to have other schools in the pipeline.

His office sends representatives to meetings of groups such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals and National School Boards Association.

“For a while, we had to tell interested schools that we were only funded for 609 units and we would only open new ones as others closed,” said Varnado. “That discouraged a lot from applying. Now, we can give them more encouragement.”

The Scarcest Resource

Finding instructors to staff the new schools and replace losses at the old ones also is a challenge. By law, the retirees must be paid enough to bring their incomes up to the level of pay and allowances they would receive if they returned to active duty. The Air Force and the schools share that amount 50-50. Some schools pay more than the minimum, but many retirees still are not interested.

“We have a pool of people who have applied,” said Varnado, “but we are not getting as many as we used to. With the drawdown over, there are not as many people retiring, and with dual-compensation limits gone, more are looking at federal jobs. Traditionally, too, when the economy is doing well, we get fewer applicants.”

He went on, “We have sent people to job fairs to recruit, and the Project Transition Office at the [Air Force] Personnel Center has agreed to let us speak at their next worldwide conference. Once we know which schools we are going to open, [Project Transition] will advertise those vacancies on [its] Web site. The center also sends us electronic lists of members who have applied for retirement, so we send [those members] letters telling them about the program. We encourage them to apply or even to contact school officials in their areas and try to interest [the schools]. If the schools apply, we also may get those retirees to become instructors.”

The AFJROTC program often has drawn fire and it still does. The CSIS report notes that several groups charge that it wastes school resources, teaches militarism, and is little more than a recruiting gimmick for the services.

A typical opponent is the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, whose Web site claims, “JROTC promotes violence, gangs, and guns.” It cites purported instances where cadets have instigated fatal incidents in public schools.

“There are critics of the program,” Varnado conceded, “but, as for its being too militaristic, the Air Force curriculum is based primarily on aerospace science. That makes up about 60 percent of our curriculum, and our textbooks [on the history of aviation, flight, and space exploration] probably are comparable to any other texts in the schools.”

Varnado added, “Cadets do not use operable weapons of any type. The only arms they are authorized are demilitarized weapons for color guards and drill teams. For a long time, we even shied away from letting cadets wear BDUs [camouflage Battle Dress Uniforms] because some communities didn’t accept them. Now, we allow cadets to wear them occasionally but only if they have permission from the superintendents and principals, and the schools pay for them.”

The question of JROTC’s being a recruiting tool for the service is more complicated. “The program is designed to promote citizenship,” said Varnado, “not to recruit. There is no requirement or commitment that the members must serve on active duty after JROTC.”

“But,” he added, “there is no doubt that some people join the military service because they have been in Junior ROTC. … Often, too, units will invite service recruiters in to talk to students about their lives after high school. But if they have a GE plant in the city, or ITT, or some other major corporation, they’re encouraged to invite people from those companies to come in and talk about careers other than in the military.

“Some students also receive ROTC scholarships for college and some have appointments to the [US Air Force] Academy. Sometimes, they have a choice among academies.”

Incentives to Join

It is true, too, that JROTC graduates are offered more incentives to join the service than are other high schoolers. Under DoD instructions, a student who completes at least two years is entitled to the grade of no less than E-2 on enlistment, and services may offer grade E-3 for completing three years.

Still, said Varnado, JROTC’s main emphasis is on character building. The curriculum covers everything from the dangers of drugs and the importance of good health to such practical subjects as how to balance a checkbook and develop interviewing skills.

“Some units begin when a kid comes into JROTC in ninth grade, having that kid prepare a résumé,” he explained. “Each year, as he or she gains community experience through volunteering, it’s added to that résumé. We encourage them to be involved. They work in food drives, adopt-a-highway programs, Special Olympics, Habitat for Humanity, and similar activities. In fact, community service is a requirement that we look at in our inspections. We also look at academic performance. Units have drill teams, color guards, and the Kitty Hawk Honor Society. But if kids aren’t doing their schoolwork, they are prohibited from those activities.”

Critics also contend that JROTC teaches unquestioning obedience and discourages individuality.

Not so, concluded CSIS. “Although adherence to chains of commands and respect for authority are essential in a profession whose activities can be lethal,” said its report, “the military does not need or want blind submission to authority. … JROTC seeks to nurture individualism in the service of a common cause.”

Varnado agrees. “I have gone to most of the units and observed cadets in the program,” he said. “The cadets actually run the cadet corps. The instructors are the facilitators. Those cadets go to officer leadership training programs to learn how to run the cadet corps.”

Some are on college campuses. They also exist at Air Force installations such as Barksdale AFB, La., Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, Maxwell AFB, Ala., Luke and Davis-Monthan AFBs, Ariz., MacDill AFB, Fla., and Moody AFB, Ga.

Randolph-Macon Model

At some schools, JROTC is more than an optional activity, and training goes beyond the classroom. Randolph-Macon Academy in Virginia, for example, operated under the National Defense Cadet Corps program until 1974 and then simultaneously adopted AFJROTC and opened its doors to female students.

Today, it is the only coeducational boarding school in America with an AFJROTC unit and an active flight training program, said Ellen Piazza, the school’s director of public affairs. This year, 38 cadets are flight students, six of them girls.

The program has two full-time, certified flight instructors, a computer-driven flight simulator, and its own single- and twin-engine trainers. Courses range from ground school through single- and multiengine commercial licenses with instrument and instructor ratings.

While flight training is optional, aerospace science is required for all cadets in the upper school (high school) each year, said Piazza. Classes are taught by four Air Force retirees.

Randolph-Macon’s president, Maj. Gen. Henry M. Hobgood, USAF (Ret.), earned his own commission through ROTC in college and retired in 1996 as commander of 2nd Air Force.

Florida Air Academy, an all-male school, also offers AFJROTC and a flight training option in cooperation with the Florida Institute of Technology and Melbourne IAP. A number of other private military schools use the basic aerospace curriculum.

The program also is a popular option at US military base schools overseas. Lt. Col. Francis W. Jowett, USAF (Ret.), has been senior aerospace science instructor at Kaiserslautern American High School, near Ramstein AB in Germany, for more than six years and taught earlier at other schools in Germany. The Kaiserslautern corps has won numerous awards and sent several graduates to service academies. These include Alonzo Babers, a USAF Academy graduate and double Olympic gold medal winner.

More typically, however, JROTC units are at public schools in the US. Many are concentrated in a few geographic areas. “There are parts of the country that are very pro-military and really support it,” said Varnado. “If you look at the distribution, the majority of our current schools are in the Southeast and Southwest, and most of those on our waiting list are in those same areas.”

The CSIS study bears out that assessment but notes that recent emphasis on expanding into inner-city schools has increased the number of units in Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and Northwest states.

Moving into new areas is not always easy. Varnado cited cases in which school principals have applied for the program and later found resistance to it in their communities. “Even if they apply and then say they don’t want it, that’s OK,” he said. “We just move to the next school on the waiting list. But we have not received any direct pressure from any community or group against JROTC. Nor have our schools reported any.”

Up to the Instructors

Making the program work is largely up to the instructors. The CSIS report showed that most AFJROTC instructors are retired lieutenant colonels and master sergeants. The next two largest groups are colonels and chief master sergeants, with majors and senior master sergeants not far behind. All of the officers and 27 percent of the NCOs have bachelor’s degrees, and 90 percent of the officers and 14 percent of the NCOs have master’s degrees.

Although most come to the job with little experience in high school teaching, many have strong backgrounds in training and broad military experience.

Lt. Col. James Adams, USAF (Ret.), for example, left the Air Force in 1993 with 34 years of service, 14 as an enlisted man. Five years ago, he became senior aerospace science instructor at Edgren High School, Misawa AB, Japan. He holds bachelor’s, master’s, and juris doctor degrees and, on active duty, instructed at Squadron Officer School and the International Officer School. He also served with the recruiting service, on group and wing staffs, and as a squadron commander.

“We attempt to expose our students to the real world of work,” said Adams, “and at the same time we attempt to motivate them to pursue college degrees.”

Lt. Col. William Jenkins, USAF (Ret.), left the service after a career flying T-38s and F/RF-4s. He is senior aerospace science instructor at Unit SC-936 at Lakewood High School, in Sumter, S.C. The school’s other instructor, CMSgt. Michael Welch, USAF (Ret.), spent his active duty career in maintenance and services.

“We both had lots of experience with teaching adults,” said Jenkins. “I was an instructor pilot and ran several academic facilities for the Air Force. Neither of us had any experience in public schools or with teenagers, other than our own. But I think we both liked the idea of being able to have an influence on young people and felt the military has a lot to offer today’s young adults. After seven years and about 1,400 students, I feel even more that way.”

JROTC programs in the other services are similar to the Air Force’s in most respects. The Army’s, the oldest and still the biggest with some 1,370 units, shares the same general curriculum with the other services and claims it is in line with national educational programs such as Goals 2000, the Labor Department’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, and the President’s Education Summit.

The Navy’s program, with 435 units, is designed to develop informed and responsible citizens, promote a healthy and drug-free lifestyle, and encourage completion of high school.

The Marine Corps has 174 units. The Corps pamphlet on the subject stresses that the curriculum aims to “develop pride, confidence, and self-discipline but fosters neither combat training nor service recruiting.”

Costs, High and Low

Funding for the four services’ programs is roughly proportional to their size, but the per-cadet investment of each varies substantially, the Marines spending the most ($539 per cadet) and the Air Force the least ($358 per cadet).

The reason the goals of the four programs are the same, Varnado said, is that all operate under the same legislation. Where they may differ, he said, is in structure and approach.

“The daily operations are structured somewhat differently,” he said. “In the Air Force decisions are made at headquarters level. The Army has regions directly under headquarters that have a lot of that work, and then directly below them they have brigades. The Navy also has regions below the headquarters that take a lot of responsibility.

“The Air Force stresses aerospace science. It makes up the biggest part of our program. The Navy emphasizes naval science but the Army and, I think, the Marine Corps base most of their curriculums on leadership training.

“The Army has weapons teams that use pellet guns and have ranges. Navy and Marines also participate in weapons training. We in the Air Force can’t see that that adds much to leadership training. We have more individual programs, such as rocketry training, where they put rockets together and compete in meets.”

One recent trend for all services has been to introduce more units into metropolitan areas. The CSIS report recommended an even greater JROTC presence in inner cities, arguing that the program is particularly helpful to youths in that environment.

Varnado agrees, although he said the services feel the term “inner city” can be misleading, since it can include some suburban schools that are well-financed.

He prefers “at-risk schools.” A DoD instruction defines schools in “an educationally or economically deprived area” as those where (1) more than 30 percent of students are in the subsidized meals program or (2) fewer than 75 percent graduate or (3) on-site visits show neighborhoods have high incidences of violent crime and many families living below the poverty level. Any one of these conditions qualifies a school as at risk.

Until recently, the services could subsidize JROTC units in such schools by paying more of the instructors’ salaries. Varnado said, “Typically, we paid 100 percent for the first two years, then 75 percent for three years, and then it went to 50-50.

“We still have about 14 schools that we are subsidizing for this academic year. After that, we will go to the 50-50 split. There are provisions of law that allow us to subsidize, but there are no additional funds that are available to support that. We have not yet had a school come in to say it cannot pay, but we may have to consider that.”

With or without subsidies, the Air Force remains deeply involved in such schools. Last year, said Varnado, 31.5 percent of AFJROTC schools (192) were inner city, 27.9 percent (170) were at risk, and about 13.1 percent (80) were both.

Often, he said, having a JROTC program in the community makes a major difference in the outcome of the students’ lives. “I can tell you up front, the program doesn’t save every student,” he said. “It’s not for every kid in high school. But we get back stories about a cadet who was going in the wrong direction, got into JROTC, learned a little about discipline [and] acceptance of responsibility. It turned the kid around.”

Ninety Years of JROTC

For much of its nearly 90-year history JROTC has faced difficulties with both acceptance and funding. The idea of JROTC goes back to 1911, when Army Lt. Edgar R. Steevers suggested a noncompulsory cadet corps to teach youngsters self-control and community service.

The National Defense Act of 1916 authorized senior ROTC for college and a junior version for high schools. The Army was to supply uniforms, equipment, and instructors-active duty members for colleges and active or retired members for high schools. JROTC graduates would earn certificates making them eligible for a reserve commission at age 21.

A rival program, known as the National Defense Cadet Corps, came into being. Unlike JROTC, the schools paid most of the costs for the NDCC. Following World War II, when peacetime funding and manning became tight, JROTC suffered from lack of support.

In 1963, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara cut JROTC funds and converted some units to the cheaper NDCC. Powerful lawmakers rose to defend JROTC, however, and Congress passed Public Law 88-647 (the ROTC Vitalization Act of 1964) to pump new life into the program.

Under this law, all services were to offer JROTC programs and increase the number of programs. It also carried a provision that gave incentives to high schools that hired military retirees as instructors. In recent years, the services have turned increasingly to retirees as their instructor source.

The Air Force entered the program in 1966 with 20 units, 11 of which still exist. In 1972, it opened the previously all-male units to women, who now make up some 43 percent of the cadet corps.

Support in High Places

From Feb. 10 testimony of the service chiefs before the House Armed Services Committee:

Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Chief of Staff, US Air Force

“We currently have over 600 schools where we have Junior ROTC for the Air Force, and we are growing that to 945, which is the limit of the law, by 2005, at about 45 a year as we add them in. It’s a wonderful program for our kids. … We encourage that program and we have some wonderful people-wonderful retirees-who work in that program. … Almost 50 percent of the folks who go into [Air Force] Junior ROTC go on to one of our services, … either by enlisting, or going through ROTC, or going to one of the academies. So we support the program and would like to see the cap [on the number of units] raised.”

Gen. James L. Jones, Commandant, US Marine Corps

“We have 60 high schools across our nation that are waiting for funding to start a [Marine Corps JROTC] program. The value of this program is beyond contest. Fully one-third of our young men and women who join the Junior ROTC program wind up wearing the uniform of a Marine. It comes at a very affordable cost, because the people who … teach these young people the values of good citizenship, of responsibility, of service to the nation, generally come from our retired ranks. … You recently allowed us to expand to 210 units, which is what we currently have. … I believe that figure could expand dramatically.”

Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, Chief of Staff, US Army

“Youngsters in my family participate in [the] JROTC program, all the way out in Hawaii. I hear from family, as well as lots of other parents in communities that find the JROTC a great initiative in our schools. … Our indications are about 30 percent of those youngsters-we don’t recruit them, as you know, we’re not permitted to do that, but, by virtue of the things that they like about that experience–about 30 percent of them end up joining the Army, either enlisting or going on through ROTC and then joining the officer population.”

Adm. Jay L. Johnson, Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy

“It’s a powerful tool for us. … [L]ast year, we stood up 55 more units. … [W]e have about 434, I think is the number-that’s close-in JROTC units. We’re on a pathway to take ourselves, by Fiscal Year 2005, to 700, which is the limit. There’s great interest in that, and even if the number is only 30 percent, you know, that’s a good number. Think about what we get out of the other 70 percent. They have exposure to us. They have exposure to the military. … That’s a powerful tool, I think, to educate, whether or not they end up in the service. … It’s well worth the investment for lots of different reasons.”

Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “Pilots for a Day,” appeared in the March 2000 issue.