Four years ago the NJROTC program at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School was nearly a casualty of district budget woes.
Four years later the ranks are bulging.
The NJROTC program had its annual inspection last week as the cadets demonstrated their skills and military manners and put on display the rapid growth of the program over the past four years under Lt. Commander Marty Jarosz (Ret.).
“We are growing steadily,” Jarosz said. “In four years we have more than doubled our numbers and we have kids that want to do this but who can’t fit it into their class schedule.
“We can’t do the NJROTC program without a lot of support. Support from parents, from teachers, from other students. They accept NJROTC as part of the fabric of the high school and part of the fabric of the community. And that community is what this county stands for.”
The growth of the program was at full attention much of last Tuesday morning under the watchful eyes of inspector Commander Michael Egan from the Naval Salvage and Diving Station in Panama City Beach.
As the school district considered cutting the program four years ago, there were 21 cadets enrolled in the program, slightly under the 10 percent threshold required of the U.S. Navy in sponsoring the program.
The Navy agreed to waive that requirement for one year, the school board maintained the program and today the ranks include 51 cadets, nearly 20 percent of the school’s enrollment.
“I’ve watched them for months; they are here early and stay late, working on drills and around the school,” said Principal Jeremy Knapp. “They are out in the community.”
The annual inspection is part of a points-earning process that every NJROTC program undertakes each year. Points are earned for participating in drill competitions, community and school outreach projects and other activities.
The goal: to earn recognition as a “Distinguished Unit” or a “Unit Achievement Award”, the two highest honors for a NJROTC program.
“We are too small to earn enough points to be a ‘Distinguished Unit’ but we’d like that ‘Unit Achievement,’” Jarosz said. “We came up just a couple of points short last year.
“We are actually ahead of where we were last year. This is something you need to take seriously and they do. We’ve worked long and hard for this.”
The inspection had several phases.
Egan, led by unit commander Javarri Beachum, reviewed the ranks, examining uniform and appearance and also asking cadets questions about the NJROTC program and their aspirations.
Cadets earning outstanding marks were recognized and congratulated personally by Egan.
“They did a great job today,” Egan said. “The program, quite honestly, is one of the strongest I’ve seen. I know they are doing something right.”
After individual and platoon inspections, the cadets broke into groups for drills.
Marching, parade formation, rifle drills, a platoon comprised entirely of females, one-by-one they marched in front of local dignitaries, parents, students, teachers and audience members.
The female platoon is another testament to the growth of the Port St. Joe program.
“We have all kinds in our program, from honors students to ESE students, male, female, minorities, they all have to do the same things,” Jarosz said. “During the inspection there is an emphasis on the new cadets to show what they have learned and the seniors for their leadership.”
After an hour, Egan pronounced the inspection a rousing success, praised Jarosz and the support the district has provided and marveled at the picture of the future standing at attention in front of him.
“This is our future,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Mel Magidson. “I feel more confident about the future just looking at them.”