Air Force Jr. ROTC enrollment surges


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NAUGATUCK — For the first time since the U.S. military became an all-volunteer force, recruiters in all branches met and exceeded their total enlistment goal of 164,000 in the 2009 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30—a phenomenon Pentagon officials chalked up to a ravaged economy and stagnant unemployment rates, according to an October report from Reuters.

The Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at Naugatuck High School has seen a similar spike in its enrollment over the last two years, but neither retired Lt. Col. Valerie Lofland, the program’s chief administrator, nor Fran Serratore, the school’s principal, attribute the uptick to students’ concerns about the job market.

In fact, according to Lofland, only about 5 percent of cadets who work their way through the Jr. ROTC program even end up enlisting after they graduate.

The Jr. ROTC cadets participate in many community happenings, including the Veteran's Day parade, above (2009).
The Jr. ROTC cadets participate in many community happenings, including the Veteran's Day parade, above (2009).

For example, she said, “I have 25 seniors this year, and I might have two, that I know of, that are going in [to the armed services]. And they’re both in the guards or reserves. … That’s probably a good representation.” She noted one was joining the Air Force and the other the U.S. Army.

Lofland was hired as the Junior ROTC administrator in August 2008. In June, 2008, six to seven months after the previous administrator left for another position, enrollment had dipped to about 80 students from the 100 the Air Force wanted.

“Before Lt. Col. Lofland got here, the ROTC program was struggling,” Serratore said. “Between her and [retired] Master Sgt. [Gary] Morrone, both of them do a tremendous job” recruiting students for the program.

Lofland said that as of October 2008, enrollment had surged to 103, then to 121 by October 2009. That spike represents about a 50 percent increase from the low of 80 and a 20 percent increase between the 2008 and 2009 reporting periods.

Serratore chalked up the jump in enrollment to the recruitment efforts of Lofland and Morrone, saying “They’ve gotten the word out, explained what the program is; kids talk about it, word-of-mouth spreads, and more students want to get involved … the enjoyment they get of drilling, the discipline, wearing their uniforms a few times a week just resonates with a number of students.”

Lofland stressed that the Junior ROTC program is not an enlistment tool, nor does the Air Force pressure her to funnel cadets toward military recruiters—though she’s happy to help cadets make that connection, if they have an interest.

“Obviously, there might be some residual spin-off” in the form of enlistment, she said, “but what Congress felt when they set up [the first Junior ROTC, an Army program] in 1916 was that the secondary schools needed some sort of a program that would show leadership, citizenship and community service. And Congress thought, why don’t we take the tenets of military leadership, put it in a Junior ROTC environment and put it in high schools, and allow them to learn about good leadership, good management and academic rigor?”

Serratore noted that “hopefully some people try to pursue their career into the Air Force or other branches of the military because they’ve gone through this program. They’re certainly aware of it, and get a taste of what it would be like.”

Lofland said opportunities to master self-discipline, leadership skills and academics are the real attractors to the program.

Students also embrace the community service, camaraderie and team-building aspects of the program, she said.

One way the Junior ROTC will serve the community in coming weeks will be a cleanup effort at Linden Park in Union City March 22. She said cadets will clean up windblown trash and may help with spring planting and the installation of birdhouses.

Cadets have the opportunity to travel to such aerospace science landmarks like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, above.
Cadets have the opportunity to travel to such aerospace science landmarks like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, above.

Another impetus to enrollment is the opportunity cadets have to take unique field trips to “get a greater understanding of the big world outside of Naugatuck,” Lofland said.

“They like to do things that are different, that they don’t find in another elective at the high school,” she added. “The Air Force encourages us to take what they call ‘curriculum in action’ trips to various aerospace science industries”—which have included Sikorsky, the New England Air Museum in Hartford, the Kennedy Space Center, Washington D.C., the United States Military Academy and the Naval Submarine Base in New London.

Some cadets are also participating in a trip to Hawaii later this month, during which they will lodge on an active military base and “get a full flavor of what it’s like on a military installation,” Lofland said. They’ll also review the role of the attack on Pearl Harbor in the U.S. entry into World War II, tour Hickam Air Force base, which was bombed during the attack, and visit the U.S.S. Arizona memorial.

“They’ll be … learning about the Air Force mission and about how important the Pacific Rim is, in terms of global studies, Lofland said. “They’ll understand more about the U.S. involvement in that area, our bases in that area, China, Japan, and the economic, political and historical backdrop to the Pacific Rim: Why we need bases there. Why we are active there. Why it’s an incredibly important theater of operations. That’s what they’ll learn.”

And why is the Pacific Rim an important area in terms of military strategy?

“One word,” she said: “China.”

Lofland teaches social, global and cultural studies in the program, while Morrone teaches leadership and management. They also encourage students to pursue “careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the classic stem courses,” Lofland said. “Stem is really very, very much on all of our minds as educators so we can compete in the global arena for talent and technology.”

Students in the Junior ROTC program take courses in aerospace studies, which can either count as a social studies elective or an ROTC elective, Serratore said. All NHS students must complete two required social studies courses and one elective in that subject area.

The aerospace studies courses cover the history of aviation, global and cultural studies, the science of flight and space exploration.

Cadets also participate in after-school physical training, including drills which culminate in drill competitions.

Serratore said participation in the ROTC is beneficial to cadets’ academic lives and to the school as a whole.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “While they’re in that program, and while they have that uniform on, everything is ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir.’ The way they address people, the classroom procedures they have in place, it has to have a carryover effect on other areas. … We look at ways to infuse some of the traits of the ROTC into the general population, because respect is certainly a big topic we have at this school and having schools demonstrate that. The ROTC people are a model of what that should look like. The more people that get involved in that program, I think, the better.”