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Chung says she has no interest in joining the military; instead, she'll be heading to UC Davis next fall to study pre-med.
But one former student wasn't as clear about what he wanted to do after high school, and was relieved that his JROTC instructors could help him get out of the military. Miles Stepto enlisted in the Marines after his junior year at Mission High without telling his JROTC instructors, since he figured they'd just tell him to go to college first, as they told everyone else. But as senior year rolled around, he stepped into the office of his instructor, a retired infantry first sergeant we'll call Sarge (who didn't want his name published because "I have to walk to the train station at night") to see how he could get out. Sarge called Stepto's recruiter, chewed him out for talking to Stepto behind his back, and demanded he let the teen out. "When a first sergeant calls, you either do it or you're dead," Sarge explains.
It must have worked. Last July, Stepto received a letter stating he had no more "contractual affiliation or obligation to any component of the United States Marine Corps." He was a free man.
Don't be fooled by such tales, opponents warn. JROTC creates a "brand loyalty" to the military among kids who otherwise wouldn't have thought of the armed services as an option. Even if they don't enlist right after graduation, once they hit a tough job market or find college classes harder than expected, they'll think back on the good times and constant promotions in JROTC, says Pablo Paredes of the American Friends Service Committee, who does counterrecruiting in schools.
"They're there to romanticize the military experience," he says. "When you've been in JROTC for four years, they speak this language to you, and it's less intimidating — the rank stuff ... the installation names, the job names — that becomes more friendly and familiar."
Samy Abdoun agrees, but he thinks being exposed to military values and discipline helped him. Abdoun says he entered Mission High in 2002 with a thirst for the armed services based on hours playing Call of Duty and Metal Gear videogames. He was placed in JROTC by his counselor (students must now proactively select the elective) and loathed it. He hated the uniform — "that tacky thing" — and regularly had to run laps or do push-ups for refusing to wear it. He hated his instructor, Michael Collier: While he says every other teacher just gave up and flunked him, he couldn't break Collier's pristine reserve. Abdoun even flipped him off once. No quiver of anger, just an order from Collier to sweep every JROTC room.
By sophomore year, Abdoun donned his uniform voluntarily and warmed up to Collier. By his junior year, Abdoun craved the even greater discipline he thought he'd find in the Army, and approached a visiting recruiter giving a presentation at the school. In his senior year, he enlisted to be an Arabic translator, against Collier's advice that he graduate first, planning to earn his GED while in the military.
Abdoun personifies the chicken-and-egg debate — does JROTC steer kids toward the military, or do kids who are already attracted to the military join JROTC? Some anecdotal, highly unscientific evidence to the latter: A junior at Balboa who said he was considering the military also had an N.R.A. patch sewn to his student sweater. Armando Frias, who reported to basic training after graduating from Galileo last year, said he'd believed since childhood that the Army pays to get you into shape and makes you a "superstar," and his four years in JROTC didn't challenge that belief. Lowell alumnus Daniel Le, who will graduate a second lieutenant from the United States Military Academy at West Point in May, said he'd always wanted to give back to the country that offered opportunities to his immigrant parents.
Citing sobering statistics on discrimination and combat injuries, what the JROTC opponents rarely say but often insinuate is that the military is an evil institution that only the brainwashed would sign up for. Abdoun says that's selling kids short: "I think it's wrong to say the military doesn't exist and we shouldn't even put Army posters up. If you want to put up a banking poster and a construction poster, that's fine. Give the kids the idea and let them choose their own career."
Some opponents say they're not against graduates joining the military — they just don't think the alleged recruiting should be happening in the public schools. Hit up the private schools, or start an after school program off-site, Sanchez says: "If this is a market-driven thing and the kids want it, and don't have to decide between that and French, then let them."
There are, of course, students whose experience in JROTC plays a part in persuading them to choose a military future. One Lowell student we'll call George (he didn't want his name published because of the school board controversy) says JROTC "definitely made me more open-minded" to a military career, mostly through the people he met. He talked to a former instructor at the school about his Army experience, and recalls being told something to the effect of, "'Basically, some days I think they cannot pay me enough to get out of bed, and other days when you're blowing shit up and stuff like that, it's like I can't believe they pay me to do this.' I pretty much agreed."