Touted as citizenship courses and feared as recruitment tools, military-sponsored classes spread this year to nearly every Hillsborough County high school.
Alexandria Valdez signed up as soon as Blake High opened an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps in August.
"I've been considering a job in the military for about two years," the sophomore said at a recent class ceremony where she was promoted to staff sergeant.
Blake junior Spencer Andrews wouldn't consider cutting his shoulder-length curls to join the program, which he calls propaganda. "They say that it doesn't have anything to do with the military, but it seems to me like all the preparation they put the kids through is just like military," he said.
The Air Force opened 48 JROTC programs nationwide this school year, including five at Hillsborough County high schools: Blake, Middleton, Jefferson, Newsome and Plant. Sickles is the only high school among the district's 23 that doesn't have JROTC but hopes to get it next year.
Hillsborough fared "far better than the national average for representation," Air Force spokesman Phil Berube said in an e-mail. Officials consider school facilities and community support in deciding where to place programs. Having MacDill Air Force Base as a neighbor aids in recruiting instructors, Berube said.
Congress created JROTC in 1916 as part of the National Defense Act to promote citizenship.
But it has proved to be effective at filling military ranks, too.
Expanding JROTC to more high schools rose as a solution at a 2000 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee amid a discussion of missed recruitment goals. Forty percent of high school cadets go on to enlist in the military, according to the Defense Department.
"There is a backlog of schools that want to get into this program," said then-Defense Secretary William Cohen, who called it one of the best recruiting devices.
More than 500,000 high school students are enrolled nationwide.
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In military lingo, JROTC is pronounced junior ROT-see. Students in any grade level can enroll.
In class, JROTC students are called cadets. Out of class, other students sometimes call them pickles, blueberries or blackberries depending on the color of the military uniform they wear once a week.
Cadets practice marching and have weekly uniform inspections. They run, do pushups and situps and cross rope bridges strung between trees. They learn financial management, time management, public speaking and military history. Some learn to shoot air rifles and march with flags or rifles, which they twirl into the air.
"Basically, they teach good citizenship," says Jim Dieringer, who heads Hillsborough's program, which has about 2,500 students. Principals request the programs, which are granted pending military funding.
Students who do well in the program can earn scholarships and enlist at advanced ranks.
Plant High's program was a natural for sophomore David Cloud, who is thinking of applying to the Air Force Academy.
"He's really gotten into it," stepfather Bob Harris said.
JROTC instructors are retired military and considered employees of their host school. The military typically pays half their salary and provides equipment, uniforms and curriculum. The school district pays the rest.
Rob Lorei, whose daughter Maria attends Plant, says it's money wasted.
"Our schools are underfunded. Our teachers are underpaid and our classrooms are crowded," he said. "If the Pentagon has so much money that it can toss around, we're being overtaxed."
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A chair sits empty in Sgt. Maj. Michael Bargy's JROTC classrooms at Robinson High School. On it, a brass plaque proclaims: This seat belongs to Lance Corporal Andy Aviles United States Marine Corps . . . He gave all. Those who did less cannot sit here.
Aviles learned self-discipline in JROTC, his parents Oscar and Norma Aviles said. But it also planted a seed in his mind. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves when he was 17 and died the next year, while battling to secure a bridge outside Baghdad.
That's what Zenola Wilson-Culver fears. In times of peace, she wouldn't mind if her 16-year-old son Otis took Blake High's JROTC. The military would give him a chance to travel and leave behind a less-than-desirable neighborhood.
But not now.
"I guess where it leads is to our military over in Iraq," she said. "They could send our kids over there."
That's one of the problems Maj. Norman Murray faces at Blake High's JROTC program, which has 23 students. "(People) see the uniforms and think we're recruiters."
Not the case, he says. Unlike recruiters, Murray and co-instructor Senior Master Sgt. Rudy Moore say they have no incentive to enlist students in the military.
"We're about citizenship and service," Murray said.
They present the military as an option. They don't pressure. They share their experiences. Murray's master's degree was paid for by the military. Moore traveled to faraway places such as Saudi Arabia.
"I guess one could call it advertisement," Murray said. "It's exposure.
"But don't tell anybody that we hoodwinked you and tried to get you into the service."
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story. Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3321.