When it comes to high school Air Force Junior ROTC programs, Jefferson High School students are among the best in the nation.
Twenty-three cadets with the school’s ROTC program recently competed at a national competition in Washington, D.C., and returned with several top awards.
The Jefferson team earned a second place award in the commander competition, third place in the unarmed flag competition and seventh place in the unarmed color guard competition out of around 40 schools.
“As a little AA school compared to all the big AAAAA schools that were there, this is amazing,” said Clay Gooch, a Jefferson 11th-grader and ROTC member. “This was the biggest crowd we’ve performed in front of, but I just looked at it as any other competition. I’m looking forward to going back next year and doing even better.”
Chief Master Sgt. Budell Willis, one of the school’s ROTC instructors, said that it was the size of his students’ hearts, not the size of the school that mattered.
“In a sea of all of these big schools and luxury coach buses, we were one of the smallest schools on hand and probably the only team to drive so far on a school bus, but in the end, that didn’t matter,” Willis said.
“This team put in a lot of hard work and the judges saw that. There’s doing things right and doing the right things. This team does things right and they do the right thing.”
The team’s accomplishments were made even sweeter by the fact that the Jefferson program is only 3 years old.
Maj. Bryan Watson, the other ROTC instructor, helped to start the Jefferson High program. He said since starting the program with around 80 students, the program continues to grow in popularity among the students.
“Next school year, we’re going to have around 35 freshman coming into the program, which is the largest incoming class we’ve ever had,” Watson said.
“The word is getting out that this program is more than presenting the colors at football game — although that is an important service, we still like to provide more learning opportunities for our cadets — and students are responding. We like to provide our cadets with experiences that they may not have had otherwise.”
Watson said that the Jefferson program has become a place where many students not previously involved in other school activities have found their place and blossomed.
One such student is Emily Mitchell, a 12th-grade member of the program’s competitive teams and one of the first students to participate in the school’s ROTC program.
“I wasn’t involved in anything at school before this. I would come to school, go home, and sleep just to do it all over again the next day. When I heard that we were getting an (ROTC) program, I said ‘OK, why not give this a shot?’” Mitchell said.
Although the goal of the program is to teach the students about citizenship, not to funnel students directly to the military, both Mitchell and fellow 12th-grader Gorge Rodriguez say that the program helped them to decide what they wanted to do after graduating from high school.
“I knew I wanted to join the military, but I didn’t know what branch,” Rodriguez said. “But after talking with (Maj. Watson) about his experiences and after participating in the program, I decided to join the Air Force. My mom doesn’t like it, but she knows that I’ll do the right thing and joining the Air Force is a great thing.”