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June 28, 2022

Getting Attention

Navy ROTC program new at high school turns heads
It’s lunch at San Benito High School and the quad is bustling
with students whose various fashions run the spectrum of styles and
looks, from pajamas and slippers to jeans and t-shirts.
Navy ROTC program new at high school turns heads

It’s lunch at San Benito High School and the quad is bustling with students whose various fashions run the spectrum of styles and looks, from pajamas and slippers to jeans and t-shirts.

Into this potpourri of style struts Amber Phillips, remarkable for her pressed and polished black slacks and shoes, a black jacket zipped to the top, and a crisp black garrison cap.

Phillips gets hugs, compliments, mock catcalls and praise for her professional look – and sometimes a salute.

The 18-year-old is one of five company commanders in the school’s new Navy Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, its top officer. It means that when she walks the school’s hallowed hallways, the program’s 189 other cadets must greet her with a crisp salute.

As a commander Phillips corrects other JROTC cadets when they let their jackets go unzipped or don’t wear their hats. She leads marches and heads a staff that records student participation.

“It’s difficult because a lot of people under me are my friends and I don’t want to seem rude and be all snappy at people: ‘Do this and do that,'” says Phillips, who likens her job to being a hall monitor.

The JROTC’s acceptance on campus and the ease with which students handle their duties – including mandatory uniforms every Wednesday or Thursday – is a far cry from the time their parents were in high school and ROTC programs across the country were targets for anti-Vietnam protestors. Although the current program is the school’s first ever, and today’s cadets are too young to remember when the presence of ROTC on campus was a bitterly divisive issue, Navy JROTC Instructor Larry Chizek remembers well.

“I was in the Navy right after the Vietnam War and that was a time when people would actually spit at you when you were in uniform. You got treated like you were scum,” says Chizek, a 46-year-old retired Naval Officer who bears a slight resemblance to Dick van Dyke. “It’s not that way anymore.”

Even civilian students agree the stigma is gone in part, perhaps, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” said student Leann Falsey after passing a platoon undergoing ‘Personal Inspection,’ where Chizek exams and grades cadets for their appearances.

Falsey even thought about joining.

“But I don’t want to wear the uniform,” she said.

What may be a drawback to some is a blessing to Phillips, who looks at the uniform more practically.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” says Phillips. “If anything, it’s cool because it’s less laundry for me to do at home and I have an outfit to wear once week, which saves me time.”

Phillips wants to join the Navy upon graduation, and sees ROTC as a confidence-building first step.

The program is an elective class that counts towards Physical Education requirements. The students can take four years of classes devoted to Naval Science and study such topics as military customs, maritime war history, oceanography and shipboard life. Although the Navy provides $300,000 worth of uniforms and equipment to the program, Chizek says the goal is not necessarily to recruit students for the military after graduation.

“The Navy’s purpose is to make them better citizens, promote patriotism, teach them responsibility and give them leadership opportunities,” says Chizek. “There’s no obligation to do anything as a result of having taken this class.”

The program is in its ninth week and nearly all cadets have their ‘summer blue’ uniforms, one of three they’ll eventually be issued. They’ll get a winter uniform, and a “working khaki” uniforms for touring Navy ships and military bases. They’re learning to march, and they’re beginning to form the required extracurricular clubs, such as an Honor Guard team that wields swords, and a Color Guard team that bears flags at football games. Participation in these groups allows cadets to earn medals and ribbons, and helps them rise in the ranks. For the half-dozen JROTC members who intend to enlist in the armed services, success in the program now can mean entry at a higher pay rate.

“If you go to some of these other high schools you see the students walking around like war heroes. They’re just filled out (with medals),” says Chizek.

The Navy requires that the school also form an orienteering team, academic team, and athletic team. These teams compete against JROTC programs from other schools in tasks such as navigating with a compass and map, testing their knowledge of the curriculum, and undergoing fitness exams. Since the roster of 194 enlistees is twice the required number for a JROTC program, they shouldn’t have any trouble fielding the requisite teams.

Interest in the JROTC at the school began more than six years ago, when the school board approached Superintendent Dick Lowry about bringing the program to campus. Lowry says that parents and community groups also expressed interest in the program.

One of those community groups excited by the JROTC program was LULAC, a Latino civil rights organization that focuses on education.

“We took 14 youths to Washington DC three years ago,” said LULAC State President Mickie Luna. “They were at the Pentagon, where they heard about the program and got very excited and said, “Why don’t we have this program at our school?”

Because ROTC makes scholarships available to students, Luna sees the program as an educational opportunity. To Lowry, one of the main appeals of JROTC is that it engages a broad range of students.

“It frequently appeals to a group of students who may not be in other activities,” said Lowry.

The school contacted JROTC programs from all branches of the military, and the Navy was most responsive. But a shortage of qualified instructors meant the school was put on a waiting list. Earlier this year Chizek completed a one-week training class and began building the campus program with the help of retired naval chief petty officer William Stratmann. But it hasn’t been easy.

“I knew I was in trouble because the school spent a couple weeks telling me what they expected of me, and the Navy spent a week telling me what they expected of me,” said Chizek. “Eight hours a day, for three weeks, people were telling me what they expected of me.”

Much of the day-to-day operation of the program is supposed to be undertaken by the students, but since everyone is starting at the beginning, Chizek and Stratmann have to do all the jobs while training the first class.

“It’s like three fulltime jobs,” said Chizek, who sometimes logs 16-hour days at the small office he and Stratmann share on campus.

They foresee a time when students shoulder more of the responsibility, the marching is a little smoother, and they can focus more on the bigger picture of the JROTC.

“I hope to leave a legacy by helping the young men and women at San Benito High School achieve their goals,” said Chizek.

For Phillips, who has worked part-time as a hostess at the Inn at Tres Pinos, the goal is to be ready for the Navy, ready to take commands, ready to march.

“So when I go in the Navy I’m not in shock,” she said.

But beyond the techniques and lessons, she’s already beginning to see a transformation in herself, especially in her voice.

“Sometimes when I talk to someone I don’t know I kind of drop my voice a little bit, like in a shy manner,” she said. “But being in the ROTC and having to yell out commands – and when he asks if you’re here you have to yell – I’ve gotten to where when I talk to people, I’m louder, I speak more clearly. I’m better with people.”

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