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ROTC’s mission: To make better citizens

April 14, 2018 GMT

Patricia Schipp celebrated her 18th birthday in a Navy boot camp in Orlando, Fla. Schipp, a naval science instructor for Santa Fe High School’s Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, ties her own sense of patriotism to her 22 years of military service.

“I’m just appreciative of my country,” she said. “I love where I live, and in spite of all our problems, we seem to be able to come together when the chips are down. … The American flag blowing in the breeze still moves me every time I see it. … I bleed red, white and blue.”

She is not alone. Despite the danger of being sent into combat in a war zone or the sometimes unpredictable political environment, many teens believe the rewards of enlisting balance out the difficulty of the training and the dangers of active-duty service.

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It’s not always because of patriotism.

Schipp said she has seen her junior ROTC graduates enlist for a variety of reasons. “I would say some of them join because it’s a family tradition; people in their family have joined for generations and they want to continue that,” she said. “Some of them join straight-up because of the college opportunity — they don’t have the finances to go to college, and you go into the military and the military has several programs — tuition assistance, college-type programs — where they will help you go to school and they’ll foot the bill.”

But others, she said, do have that red, white and blue feeling. “There’s something about the uniform or something about patriotism or whatever it might be that really stirs their hearts, and the military is where they want to go.”

She said just 5 percent of her ROTC seniors who graduate actually go on to join the military, although this year that figure is closer to 50 percent. She stressed that the program doesn’t just emphasize military skills but life skills such as leadership, responsibility and accountability.

“Yes, we have some military flavor and they get exposed to naval history and naval tradition, but the program is in fact a citizenship program and that’s the focus: on making better citizens,” she said. “A lot of [cadets] choose to go to college, and we’re perfectly supportive of that — we just want them to be doing something productive and successful in their future.”

Alongside participating in community service activities like food drives and river cleanup projects, Santa Fe High’s junior ROTC program competes with other such programs statewide. “We are an extremely competitive unit, so we have drill teams, we have an air rifle team, we have a physical fitness team, we have an academic team,” Schipp said. “We do a lot of color guards out in town for people’s ceremonies or their annual conferences or whatever.”

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The Santa Fe High ROTC program won the 2018 New Mexico JROTC Military Skills Meet earlier this month — the third year in a row the team has taken a state championship. And in March, some of the junior ROTC students earned top honors at the 2018 All-Service National JROTC Championship, a marksmanship competition, beating out 25 other four-person teams from across the country. A second Santa Fe High team placed eighth in that shooting match.

None of this, however, necessarily translates into military readiness — especially right out of high school. Yet every year tens of thousands of American teens join one of the five military service branches. A 2011 National Center for Education Statistics report said that between 2000 and 2010, somewhere between 500,000 and 575,000 teens joined.

Alex Russell, a 19-year-old criminal studies and psychology major at The University of New Mexico and a graduate of the Santa Fe High ROTC program, is one of them. She plans to join the Air Force. In some ways, joining the military solves a lot of problems for youth, she said. “The military in itself … it’s a way to get out of school and not have to worry about your health insurance or not having a job or having problems finding housing, figuring out where to live after college, because with the military you get assigned to where you go after you finish boot camp,” she said. “As a college student, it’s so rough trying to figure out what you’re gonna do with your life afterwards and figure out the job force … but with the military, there’s so many options for careers.”

The Air Force, she said, offers “a career that would constantly force [me] to push myself to be more. When I get in, I always want to be challenged, I don’t ever want to feel like I’m doing something repetitive. I expect to push myself in being a member of the armed forces, and in the Air Force to constantly be moving towards bigger and better things.”

Regarding the world’s current wars and the ever-changing political climate, she sees the military as a unifying force that understands that it has a job to do no matter what. “Even if you don’t agree with everything that’s going on in the political world, when you’re in the military, you know that you have an impact on what gets done, and you know you can put in the work for changing things,” she said. “It gives you more of a solid understanding of what’s going on, why it’s going on. You get taught what’s happening, and anyone who is joining that I’ve met, aside from all of the benefits that come with it, people are doing it because they love the country that they live in, and that’s a huge factor for it.”

And, in a world of prejudice, hate, uncertainty and school shootings, she said it can seem like “things are going downhill really quickly,” but she knows she will be surrounded by people who care about their country.

“For me, that’s how I feel patriotic,” she said. “Because I want to help as many other people as I can and make my career in the military as selfless as I possibly can … because I care about America as a people and who’s here and what I need to do to help them, rather than patriotic in the sense of ‘I hang a flag in my room.’ ”

Acacia Burnham is a senior at the New Mexico School for the Arts. You can contact her at burnham.acacia@nmschoolforthearts.org.