High school ROTC programs, which fell on hard times during the Vietnam war, have experienced a dramatic resurgence of popularity both here and around the country.
"We've had a complete turnaround," says Eleanor Rotter, who is in charge of the ROTC program in the Prince George's County high schools.
In the District of Columbia and Prince George's County, the only two area jurisdictions where public schools offer Reserve Officer Training Corps programs for teen-agers, ROTC enrollment is up tremendously over the early 1970s.
The ROTC program in Prince George's, which hit a low of 111 students in 1970 when it was offered only at Oxon Hill High School, has signed up 906 students for September at seve high schools.
The program also is booming in the District of Columbia.
"We've gone from a low of 470 students in 1973 to 1,100 in 1978," says Col. Raymond L. Smith, who runs the ROTC program in Washington's schools.
While most educators still retain clear memories of thee antiwar protests and demonstrations that took place at many schools in the early 1970s, these events seem to many of today's pupils a part of the distant past.
"If you try to talk about antimillitary feeling now to these kids, they don't know what you're talking about," says Col. Smith. "That's something the old folks did."
The growing appeal of high school ROTC courses in the Washington area reflects what is happening around the country. Nationally, the number of high school students enrolled in Naval ROTC has gone from 9,000 to 23,000 in the last 10 years.
Air Force ROTC enrollment in high schools around the nation increased from 22,313 in 1971-72 to about 31,600 this year.
The ROTC courses in the Washington area mix light instruction in military science and history with drills. Participants are under no obligation to join the armed services, and national ROTC officials say that most of those enrolled in high school programs do not choose military careers.
In addition, the instructional materials are hardly traditional these days. Smith, who runs the District's program, uses such books as "Roots," "Patton," and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" in some courses.
Among the students enrolling in the program in the District and Prince George's are increasing numbers of women and blacks.
"There're a lot of benefits to it, especially if you're a minority," said Zenobia Mack, a junior at Largo High School in Upper Marlboro. Particularly attractive, several black students said, are the economic and social mobility offered by a military career.
ROTC students at Largo described the program as a friendly place where students overcome their shyness about speaking before groups and where freewheeling discussions cover topics from sex to airplane mechanics to current political developments.
The program "has got a lot of moral standards to it," said Gregory Powell, a senior at Largo. "There's a lot of bombs," he said. "The sergeants and the colonels - you can really talk to them, like your closest friends."
It is also a place to sample the military career that some of them plan. "I was planning to go into the military and I thought I might be able to get some idea of it," said Gina Degan, a junior at Largo.
Largo ROTC students went to summer school at nearby Andrews Air Force Base last year. While they were there, they got up at 5:25 a.m., ran a mile or more a day, were allotted three minutes for showers and went to bed at 9:30 p.m. "It was like basic training," said Mack. "It was fun."
That exposure to the military is part of the value of the program to the armed services, which pay part of the cost of instructors in the high schools and provide books, equipment and uniforms.
Virtually the only cost to the school systems is their share of the salaries, according to ROTC officials. In D.C. this year, the school system will pay $107,000 in instructional salaries in nine schools. In Prince George's County next school year, the cost for the program will amount to approximately $150,000 for salaries for 16 retired military instructors.
Even that is too much to pay fot the programs, according to some critics.
"In these times of retrenchment, these times of the closing schools and the difficulties in hiring teachers, it seems to me such programs should not be expanded and potentially should be considered for elimination," said Steven Selden, one of a group of city residents who appeared before a District school board committee in May to oppose ROTC on budgetary and philosophical grounds.
'ROTC teaches young people to resort to violence in the resolution of difficulties and unquestioning obedience of authority instead of critical and responsible participation in a democratic community," said the Rev. Mamie Williams of Calvary United Methodist Church in the District.
Williams urged the city school board to abolish ROTC, and "instead, use those funds to teach young people skills that will enable them to better themselves."
In Prince George's, County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has also proposed eliminating ROTC programs as one of a number of cuts he proposed to trim school costs in his budget.
Elsewhere around the country, ROTC programs are having the same experience.
"The only problem that we are having with it really is the Proposition 13-type movements," said Lt. Col. Larry Dolan of the Air Force ROTC. "When schools start having to chop programs, normally they start trying to chop elective-type programs." CAPTION: Picture 1, With Flight Cox, front right, and Airman Boles, front center, leading way, unit executes a right oblique.; Picture 2, Cadet/Airman 1st Class Melinda Boles, left, salutes as she prepares to give the morning report on attendance.; Picture 3, Flight Leader Tami Cox marches the past a line of cadets just before a drill session begins at Largo High School; Photos by Elsworth Davis - The Washington Post