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Students get glimpse into wild blue yonder

Victoria Rader, a 17-year-old rising senior at Bloomingdale High School, stood in the sweltering heat at MacDill Air Force Base, sweating in her starched blue junior ROTC uniform.

It was Day 3 of the annual leadership program for Hillsborough County high schools' Air Force ROTC program, which gives students a look at real military life.

Rader and 75 other cadets had flown on a C-130 transport plane, watched an explosive ordnance disposal team, undergone daily room inspections and endured intense workouts.

Airmen showed the cadets equipment and techniques used every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a robot that blows up improvised explosive devices and a working dog trained to help subdue suspected terrorists.

"You see the bad guys carry these around on their shoulders all the time," Staff Sgt. Trevor McGinley told the students last week as he held up a rocket-propelled grenade.

Did it bring the war closer to home for the teens?

"I already think about it a lot," Rader said. "My brother's been there."

Rader's 21-year-old brother is an Army engineer preparing for his second deployment to Iraq.

The annual camp at the Tampa base is geared toward students who are leaders among their ROTC peers.

The cadets sleep and eat on the base, and have to be in uniform every day.

"Every day up at 5 o'clock, run a mile," was how Durant High instructor Andy Andras described it.

"It's just like a mini boot camp," Blake High senior Joshua Whelchel said. "It takes you out of your comfort zone."

Students at the MacDill camp came from Blake, Middleton, Jefferson, Plant, Bloomingdale and Durant high schools. They are among the more than 380,000 JROTC cadets nationwide. ROTC at the college level provides scholarship money and trains students to become military officers. At the high school level, junior ROTC is meant to instill citizenship and moral values in students. But it's also a recruiting tool.

After the Hillsborough County cadets watched an Air Force bomb squad set off explosives, one of their instructors shouted, "Who'd like to do this for a job? Doesn't this look fun?"

A dozen students raised their hands. Several said they had parents or siblings or uncles who served.

Dane Seckar, a 15-year-old cadet from Plant High, had a cousin killed in Iraq two years ago.

"After that happened, I said I wanted to be just like him," Seckar said.

He plans to join the military, too.

Jan Wesner can be reached at jwesner@sptimes.com or 661-2439. Read her blog about military life at blogs.tampabay.com/military.

Students get glimpse into wild blue yonder 07/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 6:38pm]

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