Many high school students try to avoid discipline, but the 72 Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets of Gainesville High School are asking for it.
At 6:45 a.m., three days a week, Gainesville High’s cadets can be found in the school gym, doing push-ups, sit-ups and running laps until 7:45 a.m., when they dress, often in full uniform, for the school day. The other two days in the school week, many of the same cadets are in a classroom at 6:45 a.m. studying American and Naval history to prepare for the upcoming Brain Brawl competition, an academic quiz bowl against other JROTC high school units.
After school, they often have drill practice, shooting practice or rehearse exhibition routines in which they skillfully spin rifles in the air on command. On Saturdays and Sundays, cadets can be found at shooting competitions or on timed orienteering drills, where they’re given a map and a compass and must find designated locations in the woods.
In only its first year, the Naval JROTC unit of Gainesville High boasts a strong corps of cadets. Some cadets said they joined because they, too, want to wear shiny medals on their lapels showcasing their accomplishments. Others said they joined JROTC because of the opportunities it provides for a better future, college scholarships, leadership skills and a better sense of well-being.
Lt. Frank Hernandez and Master Sgt. Jack Reese left their roles as corps leaders at Baldwin High School and McDonough High School to start the Gainesville High unit. Hernandez served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, while Reese pulled 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
"For some of them, it’s just a challenge. The more you throw at them, the more they want to do," Hernandez said. "... We know this is a lot of stuff we’re putting on them, but we know this is what colleges are looking for."
But the majority of the cadets in the Gainesville High unit seem eager to rise to the challenge — all five or more days each week.
Both Hernandez and Reese left regimental award-winning units behind at their former high schools. Reese said his former unit at McDonough High School won the JROTC national shooting championship last year. The two military men say they expect the same for Gainesville High’s unit before they’re through.
"We came in hard. We always shoot for a championship. We don’t want to come in second," Hernandez said.
The unit is well on its way. Hernandez said already, the Gainesville High JROTC unit has qualified for the shooting area championship, and ranks seventh out of 56 units statewide, and 12th out of 550 units worldwide. He said Georgia is one of the leading states in the nation for award-winning JROTC units.
Hernandez and Reese said they jumped at the opportunity to be a part of adding Gainesville High to the list of Hall County JROTC units, which also includes East Hall High School and Riverside Military Academy.
"We’re not just a fly-by-night elective here. We do expect our students to be a step above the regular high school student," Reese said.
He said priority No. 1 is to help JROTC cadets graduate from high school and evolve into good citizens.
"We’re not recruiters," Reese said. "We don’t care if they go into the military. Our core values are honor, courage and commitment. You know the three R’s you hear about? Reading, writing, arithmetic? There’s a fourth R — respect."
Through rigorous physical and endurance training, academic standards and community volunteer work, Reese said his cadets learn to respect their peers, their elders and themselves.
"I think today’s youth doesn’t think it’s manly or ladylike to be courteous, and we’re trying to put that back into our society," he said.
And JROTC isn’t just for boys, Reese said. There are quite a few girls in the unit, including Lauren Weaver, a sophomore at Gainesville High who is ranked as JROTC’s 15th best shooter in the nation. Weaver transferred to Gainesville High from Baldwin High School just to stick with Hernandez’s top-notch program.
Hernandez said the JROTC program helps develop students to their fullest potential, making them eligible for college and scholarships that can carry price tags of up to $180,000 or more. He said once students graduate, he continues to keep in touch with them by visiting students at college or lending an ear and giving advice as they encounter the obstacles of adulthood.
"ROTC is basically like one big family," said Gainesville High junior Austin Hottinger, who serves as the executive officer of the Gainesville High JROTC unit. "When you spend as much time with a group of people as we do, you grow together. It makes you feel you always have somebody to rely on."
Hottinger is seeking a $300,000 scholarship to attend the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He said in his time as a leader of the unit, he’s seen how students transform.
"It changes them," he said. "They start respecting elders more, some of them. They have better responses and better attitudes. They mature. I do have to say I’d probably be more immature and disrespectful without ROTC."
Hernandez said this is just the beginning for the Gainesville High JROTC unit. A potluck dinner held for the cadets and their families brought out more than 130 people.
"The word is out. The people want to be involved," Hernandez said. "The turnout was outstanding. We envision this program to grow."