Ashton Smith was barked at for stepping on the grass, “just this much” she says holding her fingers inches apart. Her drill instructor demanded she apologize to the sea of green for the injustice she had committed.
And then, she was chastised for making her amends too loudly. She throws her hands in the air, exasperated by the memory.
Wake up was at 4 a.m. There was no talking at meals. But the food. Oh, that salmon. It was the best they ever had.
There were tears. So. Many. Tears. They lost their voices from the constant shouting. But, dessert was served in the final days and it was delicious.
And after one week, the cadets of Baldwin County High School’s Air Force JROTC unit had proved themselves worthy of graduation.
The JROTC program teaches high school students character education, achievement, wellness, leadership and diversity and is a partnership with the four military branches. Students are not required to commit to military service upon graduation and receive credit for PE and career prep courses. Several Baldwin County high schools host JROTC units.
Six BCHS cadets attended the Cadet Leadership Course at Kessler Air Force Base in Mississippi over the summer. There they faced a week of basic training-like rigors as well as leadership building classes. The week began with 160 cadets from six states. Only 145 lasted until graduation.
BCHS Senior Charlie Stewart was named a distinguished graduate, the first BCHS student to earn the accolade since the JROTC program was introduced at the school.
The cadets came home with tales of tough mornings, long days and lots of yelling. Their stories rival that of any new recruit writing home to momma during basic training.
But was it fun? Absolutely. The cadets nearly pop up out of their chairs as they share their stories.
It was the experience they love to hate. In addition to giving them a taste of military boot camp the students worked with teenagers from across the Gulf Coast. They learned to write and give speeches, fine-tuned leadership skills and played teamwork activities.
“We worked a lot on leadership skills,” said sophomore Aliyah Larson.
Stewart said the cadets learned to control handling stress throughout the week as instructors challenged them both mentally and physically.
“We learned our weaknesses and our strengths,” he said.
Cadet Sarah Lockhart added, “We learned you can’t be a good leader unless you are also a good follower.”
As a distinguished graduate, an honor bestowed only on 10 percent of the program’s graduates, Stewart would have the option to return next summer and teach if he were not graduating this spring.
Upon graduation, both he and fellow cadet and senior Matthew Nelson plan on enlisting in the Navy.
There is no military service requirement for JROTC cadets. Instead, instructors, all retired military personal, say they aim to prepare students with leadership skills fit for any future career.
“We want them to be their own best person, whatever that is,” said BCHS JROTC instructor Air Force Maj. Jamie L. Barnes, retired. “Not all of our students will go into the military but they are all going to be something.
“Our mission is to build a better citizen,” he said.