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Basic training
New Junior ROTC program at Gainesville High gives kids a chance to experience a military lifestyle
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Lt. Frank Hernandez, right, and Master Sgt. Jack Reese give a short lesson to Gainesville High School students Jorge Salazar and Sonia Zavala, both 16, on the basics of the school's new practice rifles. The rifles, which are unable to fire, are the same shape and weight of the real weapons used in competitions.

0512SLIFEAUD

Sonia Zavala, a Gainesville High School sophomore, talks about why she wants to be a part of the Junior Naval ROTC program starting in the fall.

Sonia Zavala is considering a military career when she graduates from Gainesville High School in two years.

Next school year may either seal the deal for her or change her mind, as she plans to take part in the school's new Junior Naval ROTC program starting in the fall.

"My fantasy has been to join the Marines," said Zavala, 16, a sophomore, in an interview last week at the school. "With this (program) here at school, it's a great opportunity to understand what it's really about.

"You see the commercials and stuff, (but) you never really know (what it's like) until you try it."

One of the program's two leaders, retired Navy Lt. Frank Hernandez, added, "When we teach the program, we teach it right. We're not going to lie to you. So either you like it or you don't like it."

Gainesville High has been shopping for JROTC programs for several years. The Naval program was announced earlier this year.

Hernandez, an ROTC instructor for eight years, and Marines retired Master Sgt. Jack Reese, who has taught ROTC for 10 years, sought the GHS positions once they heard about them.

"It's a great opportunity to come to Gainesville. I've heard great things here," said Reese, who left Union Grove High School in Henry County after five years. Union Grove was state champion in ROTC competition the past four years.

"Starting your own unit is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for us. ... I think we need to go up and make Gainesville state champions," Reese said.

Hernandez, who came to GHS from Baldwin High School in Milledgeville, said, "It's kind of an honor in the Navy to be able to go to a ... school and open up a program the way you want to do it."

He also believes that his own Hispanic ethnicity would match well with the community. Hispanics make up more than half of the city school system's student enrollment.

Hernandez and Reese have been meeting with students this semester, trying to drum up business for next year and talking with officials in the Junior Naval ROTC program at East Hall High School.

"We're not recruiters, but we have to recruit for our program," Hernandez said. "... I just walk up to (students) and introduce myself.

"The kids here have been very receptive. There are a lot of kids here who maybe don't do extracurricular activities or maybe haven't found their niche in school yet. ROTC provides something different that ... will make them feel part of the school."

Students will wear their uniforms to school on Wednesdays, participate in drills on Thursdays and physical training on Fridays.

The program, which has academic and athletic components, is free to students except for extras, which can be offset by fundraisers.

"Our field trips are not just for fun, even though they can be," Hernandez said. "... We go to a lot of historical battlefields, we take them on ships and we show them about American government and how it works."

One thing the instructors stress is that students have no military commitment to fulfill after high school.

"If you would want to do it, we would like to help you make that decision," Hernandez said.

Zavala said she sees the program "as a great opening for me to be a leader and an overall experience to build up self-confidence and be more motivated in life."

Freshman Jorge Salazar, 16, is considering a career in either the Navy or Army.

"This is a new program for this school, and I am trying to take advantage of new things I have in life, so I can succeed in life," he said. "The thing about military or ROTC that fascinates me is that we get to go to different (historical) places, like here in Georgia, they fought in (the Civil War)."

Hernandez said he believes the program can benefit students regardless of their interests.

"It teaches leadership. It gives them confidence. At this age, a lot of (students) lack confidence. They don't know what to expect. The futures for some of them may look dim," he said. "We just try to get to the kids and treat them as individuals and talk to them, find out what it is they want, what we can do to help.

"And when we do that, we establish a certain rapport that they may not have with any other teacher in the school."

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