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The U.S. Army on Tuesday announced it would award the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) Medal of Heroism to the three high school cadets slain attempting to protect their classmates during last week’s murderous attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The grieving families of heroic JROTC Cadets Peter Wang, Alaina Petty and Martin Duque, were each presented with the posthumous awards, whose requirements include “an accomplishment so exceptional and outstanding that it clearly set the individual apart from fellow students or from other persons in similar circumstances.”
These cadets, and other members of their unit who performed bravely and selflessly in the midst of the deadly chaos, had already set themselves apart in smaller ways, and distinguished themselves from their peers through their participation in one of our nation’s best remaining patriotic programs for young people.
In the mid-1980s, having moved to the South from western New York, the JROTC program was a wonderful discovery in the course of adjusting to my new high school.
Junior ROTC was established in 1917, alongside the college-level Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, at a time when America was committed to training young men in the martial virtues. JROTC expanded during the Cold War to encourage military preparedness, and has entered the 21st century with a record of success in all of its goals. The program’s military trappings enhance its effectiveness for education in patriotism, personal character, and communications skills, as well as knowledge specific to the services; and JROTC’s military recruiting function, while secondary, is also significant.
I didn’t know all of that at the time, but I knew that here was an opportunity to wear my nation’s uniform (in my school, the Air Force uniform) and to try to live up to the responsibility that went with it. I felt as though I were actually joining the ranks of the heroes I’d been raised to emulate.
Once a week, on our uniform day, I’d stride proudly through the halls between classes sporting my uniform and, eventually, rank insignia and ribbons. (An active and capable cadet, in four years of JROTC, can often accumulate a “ribbon rack” rivalling in appearance those of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These awards do not carry over into college ROTC or active service—but the military socialization, along with the values and knowledge gained from JROTC, do.)
JROTC instructors are uniformed, retired U.S. military officers and noncommissioned officers with a unique place on their high school faculties. Their relationship to their students is part teacher and part coach, but also the students’ first glimpse of the military leadership paradigm that goes beyond both.
Great things could be accomplished through JROTC, a fast-forward to senior ROTC scholarships or service academy appointments—or an immediate boost in rank and pay upon enlistment, to cadets who choose that route. Naturally, silly things could happen too. Once, I received a minor ribbon which, as part of its citation, mentioned that I’d stayed after that year’s Military Ball was over, to help clean up; I called it my “Couldn’t Get A Date” ribbon. Still, in our daydreams we were heroes—and the steps we were taking towards those daydreams, guided by the wise leadership of instructors whose military careers gave them a broad base of experience, were making us better citizens. (Not universally, certainly; there were students who would not internalize the values the program promoted; generally they weeded themselves out after a semester. )
The essence of leadership training is accepting personal responsibility, for one’s actions as a “follower” and then increasingly for one’s decisions, as a leader. When this is taught in a military context, it’s reinforced in myriad ways beyond correct answers on a multiple choice “leadership test”
I suspect we all thought we wanted to be heroes; fortunately, we never got to be. None of us could have imagined how terrible an opportunity for heroism might have been.
Today, we know of a Junior ROTC unit that has taken real-world casualties—young Americans who in some cases sacrificed themselves as surely and as valiantly as the Continentals at Bunker Hill, or young sailors at Pearl Harbor—teenagers who made the most of their limited training under the worst of circumstances.
The three members of the Junior ROTC unit at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who were killed in action were shot by a disturbed teen who had “weeded himself out” of their unit sometime before. And they did perish in action—as resisters and rescuers. Others—Cadet Captains Zackary Walls and Colton Haab have been names mentioned in the news—performed with outstanding, and lifesaving, leadership during the terrible events there. They, too, deserve formal recognition for actions in the highest traditions of the American citizen-soldier.
The ROTC Medal for Heroism’s criteria specifies: “… accomplishment so exceptional/outstanding as to set cadet apart from others in similar circumstances (which) must involve acceptance of danger or extraordinary responsibilities exemplifying praiseworthy fortitude and courage.”
Based on news reports so far, this is an apt description of the performance of the Douglas High School cadets. Awarding the medal to surviving as well as well as to the fallen cadets would not only honor these exceptional young men and women, it might also help to direct national attention both to positive behavior by disciplined, patriotic young Americans, and to the difference individual valor can make during a horrific attack.
Focusing attention on these young people, speaks to who we are—or at least, who we should be, when we live up to the ideals of self-governing, free, and independent citizens. These cadets have not been coached to march to make loud demands—rather, while learning to march, they have also learned what duty demands of citizens and leaders. They displayed courage, compassion, and individual initiative in the most difficult of circumstances.
That’s exactly what we need our young people to learn. Cadet organizations such as JROTC, Civil Air Patrol, and the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets (the latter two programs are even accessible to private-schooled and homeschooled students), provide challenge, guidance and inspiration for young Americans daily, establishing common values and reinforcing a sense of personal responsibility within a culture which desperately needs to reclaim both. We need to support these organizations, beyond the well-deserved public recognition of the heroism so recently displayed by the members of this JROTC unit. America’s greatness depends on the virtues and values which these programs, against the general drift of our culture, still promote.
American greatness is not found merely in economic prosperity or international respect; there’s no American greatness greater than a boy, in a man’s uniform, laying down his life for his friends.