Class of 2013 | Military bound
NEW PORT RICHEY — Tyler Baker bounced from state to state, school to school over the past five years, searching with her mom and brother for a permanent place to settle.
When she landed at Gulf High School in the middle of her junior year, Tyler craved some stability and a place to belong. She looked no further than the school's highly decorated Navy JROTC program.
After a year as a recruit, the 17-year-old who's often called "Baker female" to differentiate her from her younger brother ("Baker male") knew she had found her match. She enlisted in the U.S. Army, with plans to begin basic training about six weeks after graduation.
Baker's rationale was simple: "I wanted something stable for once in my life," she explained.
The idea of serving her country with pride, while being trained in a profession she can use long after retirement, appealed to her, too.
"I'm going into the military and getting paid, and getting paid to go to school. Why not just do that instead of going to college and paying for it myself?" Baker said.
With graduation approaching, thousands of Pasco County seniors are finalizing their plans for life after high school. Each year about 5 percent, or roughly 200 Pasco County graduates, choose to enlist, according to the district's annual graduates and leavers reports.
Those numbers tend to grow in the months after commencement, said Jose Rodriguez, chief petty officer of Gulf High's JROTC program.
"Most teenagers don't make the decision in high school to go into the military," Rodriguez said. "Many get out and see they can't afford college or get jobs. ... Then they go into the military."
Recruiting has risen with the weak economy of recent years, and Pasco County has played its part. One census study ranked it 75th of all U.S. counties for the number of U.S. Army recruits in 2010.
With quotas shrinking, though, schools have seen less of the recruiters, said Kathy Trapp, Gulf High's career specialist.
"They're not here as much as they used to be," Trapp observed, adding that the school continues to provide informational materials and offer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test at least once yearly.
Elizabeth Clary learned through her ASVAB testing that she might be on track to become a mental health specialist as part of her Army training. She has enlisted and was slated to begin basic training in the fall until she injured herself and had to delay for surgery.
Clary qualified to enter the Army above the basic grade because of her four years in Gulf's Navy JROTC program, in which she rose to operations officer. The daughter of Army veterans, she said she needed the discipline that the high school military program provided, and she did not want to leave the environment.
"In my middle school I wasn't the best student. I needed to be a part of something to make my life better," said Clary, 17. The unit helped her gain respect of herself and others, she said, while giving her the experience of "being part of something, being proud of your country and who you are."
The cadets bonded as a family, Clary said, while the teachers came to have high expectations, meaning she had to become a positive example in the school.
Joining the Army lets all that continue, she said.
Eli Hazen shared in the passion for the Navy JROTC program. In his four years, he rose to become the unit's student commanding officer.
"I used to be really shy," said Hazen, 18. "This has helped me open up, even to strangers. They teach a lot about leadership during the four years you're here. ... It gave me a lot of experience I can use later on."
He does not, however, plan to join the military. Rather, he wants to go to college in pursuit of a military-related job, working on cyber-security.
"I like the whole government and military service. I am a patriotic person," Hazen said. "Doing something for the country is better than nothing at all."
He hasn't faced many questions about his path. But the two Army recruits said they have.
"I get, 'Wow, are you stupid? You're going to be in war,'" Baker said.
"They're like, 'Are you sure? Do you know what you're getting yourself into?'" Clary added.
Both said they try to take such comments in stride, and not to consider them as insults. Because for them, serving the country is the right choice.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.