Does JROTC foster a culture of violence, as some in Albuquerque purport?

I did not wake up thinking that today’s blog would address this question. Instead, I was all set to post a blog about renovation in Barelas and the challenge of maintaining historic architectural integrity in our neighborhood during trying economic times.

And then I walked into the dining room and saw the front page of the Albuquerque Journal, with photos of some kids who looked very familiar, and my plan flew out the window.

Here’s one mother’s take on this issue.

Let me start by saying that I lean left. When it comes to social issues, I lean progressively left. I’ve attended plenty of anti-war protests from Berkeley to the National Mall in Washington DC to Civic Plaza here in Albuquerque.

Given this, you can imagine my response when my firstborn told me he wanted to join JROTC at a public high school here in town. It was not a path I had envisioned him taking. We talked about it for months as a family, weighing the value of autonomy against the value of parental prerogative, ultimately deciding that lessons learned through individual autonomy (with the safety net of parents close by) would be best for our adolescent son.

So we said “yes” to JROTC. (I figured it would last a semester, possibly a year).

I did not reckon that my son had nascent leadership skills that would blossom under this program. Granted, they could have grown under any program, but this was the one that captured his passion. And I certainly did not guess when he joined JROTC that this would be the one constant extracurricular activity that kept him engaged through all 4 years of high school. Or that he would amass a shelf full of JROTC awards and honors recognizing his skills and talent.

For four years, I was the lone JROTC parent pulling up to drill meets in a vehicle plastered with peace and justice slogans. I was the mom with the trilingual peace button on my tote bag (salaam, peace, shalom), plus a few other buttons that were, shall we say, not exactly supportive of the decisions made by the administration in Washington.

In 4 years, no one ever questioned me about my political views at a JROTC event, though I was ready with a well-honed First Amendment rebuttal. (Maybe they knew that.) After all, they do teach the Constitution in JROTC.

I watched my son closely during all JROTC events and continued ongoing conversations while he was in JROTC. We spoke numerous times about the need to think critically and reflectively about everything he encountered, including the JROTC handbook and other materials.

We talked about glorifying war and the culture of violence, but we also talked about peace-keeping, nation-building (à la the Marshall Plan), and the need for the military to have leaders who could think critically using the lens of history.

He had some good role models to consider – two grandfathers who had served in the Navy and who knew their American and world history well enough to write and converse about a host of issues, plus engage him in discussions on topics as varied as "don't ask, don't tell", the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremburg Principles, and Gitmo.

Another man had a significant influence on my son’s interest in JROTC. Colonel Dan Zupan (ret.), a member of my graduate school cohort here at UNM and a military ethics professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point), was a larger than life presence during my son’s elementary school years. One of Col. Zupan’s students was Ian Fishback. You might know him as the guy who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib.

I’m well aware that not all kids who sign up for JROTC come to it with this background knowledge.

Over the years, we had a number of JROTC kids from different family circumstances break bread with us. Some saw JROTC as the first step away from desperate poverty or a way to avoid gang membership. Some just wanted to develop self-discipline they had never learned at home, and others wanted to gain an edge when the time came to apply to one of the service academies.

Of those dozens of kids who came through our home, some of them are now in the service, a few are in ROTC programs or attending service academies, and many of them (most of them according to my non-scientific evaluation) have no post-high school connection to the military at all.

My four years of experience as a JROTC parent did not give me any cause for concern. This was in large part due to my son’s two JROTC teachers, who respected parents and their children, who listened and responded to parents promptly, and who conducted themselves with integrity.

To my surprise, I even learned that JROTC could provide reassurance. Here’s one example.

One day, while I was working out of town, I received a call from my son, who wanted to talk. It seems that he had noticed that there were kids in his JROTC unit who never ate lunch themselves, but would just hang out with the rest of the unit while they ate lunch.

My son put two and two together, and realized that these kids came from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the school’s residential district zone. At the same time, he recognized that high school kids are often too self-conscious to be saddled with the “free lunch” label. As team unit leader, my son created a new rule. Everyone would put take their lunch out of the bag and would put it in the middle of the table and all would share. No exceptions.

As he was telling me this, I started swallowing hard, trying to get rid of the lump in my throat. (You see, my main goal as a parent is to raise compassionate kids. We're getting there.)

When he finished with his story, I told him to start making extra sandwiches and throw in a few more pieces of fruit in his backpack. He was a step ahead of me, letting me know that he had already been doing this, and that he had called to let me know why the groceries were getting used up a little faster than usual.

I think that the JROTC’s rigorous emphasis on teamwork, values, and teaching leadership skills allowed this to happen. I’m not sure that it could have happened as easily in any other extracurricular high school context; in part, the hierarchal nature of JROTC made this “order" possible.

When I hear people object to JROTC programs in the schools, I always go back to this example and wonder.

If we remove JROTC from the schools, what educational opportunities will be lost?

What would the act of removing JROTC from our schools teach our children about the ways in which they could serve their community or country?

And perhaps most pragmatically, if a child is born into circumstances with limited opportunities and/or resources and is drawn to JROTC, does it make sense to cut a program that sustains that child's engagement with school? What viable alternatives exist now at APS for these children?

Recruiting is a separate issue.

Just as parents can refuse to allow their child to take JROTC courses, parents also have the option of refusing to release their student’s information to recruiters. Parents will need to weigh this decision individually and make the decision that they believe is best for their child.

Some recruiters are incredibly persistent and use highly questionable methods. After a 20 minute conversation with a recruiter from the Navy, I ended up telling the recruiter to never set foot on my property again - partly because he was rude and sexist, but mostly because he was using noncogent arguments and playing with games with statistics. I followed up with a single spaced 2 page letter documenting our experiences and cc’d it everywhere I could. Within a week we received a phone call, letter, and profuse apologies from his commanding officer.

Because of this experience, I’m as skeptical as Sextus Empiricus when it comes to recruiters, and I caution any parent out there to think very carefully about giving recruiters access to their minor child, especially if that child's critical reasoning skills are not well developed.

I urge anyone thinking about today’s Journal article not to conflate JROTC programs with military recruiting. They are different programs with different goals and outcomes. In my experience as a parent, I have seen JROTC foster a culture of responsibility, respect, and leadership.

A culture of violence?

Not so much.

Views: 186

Comment by CB on November 23, 2009 at 5:35pm
What a wonderful job you have done with your should be proud.

In my opinion it is up to the parent to keep track of what is going on in these programs, before allowing their children to join and during their time in the program. You made a great point regarding leadership in the military. If only one type of person joined military groups, we would only have that one type as leaders. You did an awesome job of showing the other side.
Comment by Adelita on November 23, 2009 at 6:24pm
I certainly have had my own prejudices about JROTC, mostly out of ignorance. Right now I am doing a contract job that takes me to every public school in the city. I am basically able to walk into any classroom at any time. There was one particular middle school, who shall remain nameless, that quite frankly scared me. The students were so unruly and disrespectful to the teachers that I was in shock. That is until I walked into the classroom for JROTC. The students were in complete control of the class, and in a good way. They were disciplined, organized and unbelievably well-mannered.

As I sat in the class I was so impressed by the leadership of the commanding officers as well as the students. I personally was treated with respect and kindness. I kept thinking, this entire school needs to be in JROTC!!! It forever has left a positive impression in my mind. I've come into contact with other JROTC programs at other schools and it has been the same experience.

Thank you BB for such wonderful insight into something just a few short months ago I was so completely prejudiced against. And congratulations on bringing up such a well rounded and wonderful son!
Comment by bg on November 23, 2009 at 6:26pm
And your point about the difference between JROTC and recruiting is not to be underestimated.

Because the military may be the only ticket out of poverty for lots of people, but there are too many poor kids who end up at the cemetery instead of college.
Comment by Barelas Babe on November 23, 2009 at 8:19pm
Speaking of numbers. I just asked my son how many from his JROTC senior class were doing something related to the military (enlisted, ROTC, etc). 3 out of 20 are; in his 4 years this was the largest number of students to make a commitment to the military - in previous years, with graduating class sizes of 15-25, there was usually just one. This is one school in Albuquerque and others may have very different numbers.

Re: bg's comment, I agree that poor kids need more options than they have now. I believe that education is part of the answer here.
Comment by hettie on November 23, 2009 at 8:26pm
bb, thanks for this article. my experience as a h.s. teacher bears out what adelita said above. I had very, very few students who were part of jrotc who weren't also more conscientious than a lot of others when it came to their responsibilities as students. and I had a couple of positive interactions with the sergeant at ahs regarding problems with individual students. the notion that jrotc promotes violence might have some play if one views it at a larger scale, considering the political implications of having such an immense, expensive standing army in our nation. however, the jrotc kids I've worked with over the years were the least likely kids to get into a fight or encourage others to do so. jrotc promotes a culture of personal responsibility that can be hard to come by these days, whether one is an adult or teenager. kids in jrotc are taught ideas about integrity and honor as human beings that many others miss out on. it's one of the few h.s. programs that seems to impart to kids that there are real consequences for their actions. understand that all this praise is coming from someone who considers herself on the very progressive end of the scale. but I also believe that society works best when people take responsibility for themselves as best they possible can and look out for those who can't because they're human too.

I think your point about separating jrotc from recruitment is vital. particularly as recruitment targets all h.s. students and few are as fortunate as your son in having savvy parents who act in their best interests. the fact that private info about every student is released to the military becomes a problem in part because military recruiters (and I'm speaking from personal experience here) can be very aggressive and some of the kids they target not only lack the critical thinking skills you mention, but also lack parents who are deeply involved in their lives. I think the recruitment issue has an easy fix. rather than having parents opt out of releasing their child's info, parents should have to opt in. then, if a student sees a presentation or has a conversation that sparks interest, they can go to their parent for a release of info. it fosters a conversation between parent and child and makes the recruitment cycle a conscious choice.
Comment by hettie on November 23, 2009 at 8:27pm
I got all wound up and forgot to add that your son sounds like a great human being.
Comment by Barelas Babe on November 23, 2009 at 8:45pm
@ hettie - I like the idea of opting in. In fact I'd like to see organ donation in this country driven by an opt-out system, and military recruitment shift to opt-in. That is something I could support!

You know, I marvel at this young man we've raised - so many of those lessons that I had no idea would "take" have now become manifest in so much that he does. Parenting is such an amazing experience.
Comment by Eric Renz-Whitmore on November 23, 2009 at 8:48pm
Great, well thought and balanced post. Thanks!
Comment by Rich Boucher on November 24, 2009 at 8:35am
Thank you, Barelas Babe, for this very well-written article. I would be curious to know a little more about the conversation you had with the sexist, rude recruiter. I don't mean to pry; I guess I'm just wondering what he had been saying to you (and the way he was saying it) that had angered you.

Thanks again,

Comment by LaGuera on November 24, 2009 at 8:43am
@ Lauren: Are you talking about the Astorgas? Because, as far as I know, only one (Michael) is in jail awaiting a trial for his alleged shooting of deputy James McGrane (sorry if I spelled that wrong). Just because someone in a family does something rotten, does not mean that the entire family is impugned. I know people in the military who are unethical, lying, deceitful bastards. I also think that JROTC is a backdoor way to recruit children into the military. I think that it is important to avoid generalizations: just because you don't know someone in the military who is a jerk doesn't mean that all military service personel are good-hearted people. Just because your son or daughter wasn't recruited into a lifetime of military service by joining JROTC doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. Just because the nice kid up the block is in JROTC doesn't mean that all nice kids are in JROTC, or that all kids in JROTC are well mannered and disciplined. Just because Michael Astorga may have shot a man doesn't mean that his family can't have careers, be helpful neighbors, or be free of his stain.

I think that on the whole, Barelas Babe's post was great. Her son sounds like a fine, upstanding young man who is compassionate and perceptive. This is probably because she is a great parent. I particularly admire that she allows her son to follow his curiousities and interests without ridiculing him for taking a stand contrary to her own.

But Lauren, wow, that's just so . . . off.


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