Aishia Lassiter's analysis of what happened to her last week atop a 35-foot rappel tower wasn't complicated: "I freaked."
But Lassiter, a 14-year-old from Baltimore, made it down the tower's wooden side wall Tuesday, supported by rope harnesses, some retired military instructors and dozens of cheering teenagers -- like her, members of the Army Junior ROTC.
"I was crying and trying to go down the stairs, but the major wouldn't let me," she said.
Lassiter smiled at the empowering memory a few hours later as she waited to start an obstacle course in a woodsy clearing at Fort A.P. Hill, a military training facility in Caroline County, Va., about 30 miles south of Fredericksburg.
Lassiter described what got her down from the tower as a combination of the same things that got her to the weeklong training camp: a desire to overcome her fears and a fierce patriotism that has her considering a career in the military.
"Other kids make jokes. They just aren't on the same level. They don't understand the respect you have for your country," she said of her classmates at Fairmont-Harford High School, who, she said, are turned off by the youth citizenship group primarily because members have to wear uniforms to school one day a week.
But Lassiter is in growing company.
The Army Junior ROTC's Camp Success, an annual leadership and education camp that ended yesterday, is the largest youth military event in the region, officials at A.P. Hill said. It had more than 700 participants this year from Virginia, Maryland, Washington and West Virginia. Its attendance has grown each year, with 652 teenagers last year and 575 in 2002.
Nationwide, the number of participants in the high school arm of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps has risen over the past 10 years from 303,645 to 402,000.
Junior ROTC programs involving all branches of the military generally have grown over the decades, but they began to expand significantly in the early 1990s, when then-President George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, set a goal of having 3,000 schools participate. At the time, about 1,600 schools participated; today, there are 3,361, most of them with the Army. According to the Pentagon, the budget has grown from $157.4 million to $201 million.
Although Junior ROTC officials emphasize that the programs are designed to prepare youth not for the military but rather to be strong, disciplined U.S. citizens, participants estimate that half their peers plan to join the service, and some say they were motivated to join by recent events, including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq.
"I want to help protect my country," said Hollie Craft, 15, of Charlestown, W. Va., who had just vaulted 16 wooden hurdles as her "Alpha Company" colleagues cheered. "And more since September 11."
Matt Swann, 14, of Lansdowne, Md., said he missed his family when he first arrived at Fort A.P. Hill, where typically 1,500 soldiers at a time are training somewhere on the 76,000 acres. "But then you take it slow, day by day," said Swann, who wants to be a military pilot. "I know a lot of kids have strong feelings about the war. The war has definitely influenced the growing of the JROTC."
But instructors say the program aims to fight a different war -- a war against drugs, adolescent malaise and low parental support. "We have kids who come from single parents -- it's hard for them. They need discipline," said Sgt. Maj. Bernard Branch, who runs the Army Junior ROTC program at Benedictine High School, a private Catholic school in Richmond where all 280 male students participate in the program. "We want to give them a sense of urgency and responsibility. Our kids don't have it anymore, and they need it."
As at other Junior ROTC camps across the country, activities at Camp Success involve leadership and confidence-building and range from learning to use a compass or make a flotation device out of a pair of pants to descending a rappel tower and shooting air rifles. There are early morning "personal hygiene" checks in which rooms and uniforms -- green fatigues -- are inspected. Every activity at Camp Success is graded, from walking -- or marching -- between activities to speeding across the obstacle course.
One major focus, officials say, is on getting young people to work as a team.
"You need to be a good follower to be a good leader," said Sgt. Maj. Ralph Cooper, who runs the Army Junior ROTC program at Parkdale High School in Riverdale and teaches a science session at camp. In his session, students make electric cars out of such odds and ends as a rubber band, a battery and a piece of plastic ruler.
Participants take turns leading. In one exercise, a boy loudly and crisply ordered the 36 people in his "platoon" to march out of Cooper's classroom in a row. By the end of the week, youths at the camp run every aspect of the graduation.
"Where in the civilian world could you oversee 150 people when you are 17 or 18?" asked Maj. Lee Bowman, the camp spokesman.
Learning to manage that responsibility can be difficult. Teenagers at the pool -- including those who didn't know how to swim -- were told that their entire 200-person squad would lose points if they didn't jump in.
"That's the biggest thing -- you don't want to let people down," said Gerquita Rich, 14, of the District as she dried off after jumping into the waiting arms of instructors who showed her how her pants would balloon up and cheered as she floated on her back from the deep to the shallow end. "I've never swam at all and didn't even want to get into the pool."
Some of the teenagers said they feel that people respect their participation in a military program more since the Sept. 11 attacks. Others say the opposite.
"Unfortunately when people see their outfits, they think we're training them for the military, and unfortunately that's seen as a negative," said Command Sgt. Maj. John W. McConnell, who runs the program at St. John's College High School in the District, explaining why military officials emphasize that Junior ROTC is not primarily about the military. "After Sept. 11, it was different, but now we're back to snobby times."
Lassiter said she ignores her peers' comments and focuses on people such as her elder brother, who is in the military. "He said, 'When you go, you represent,' " she said, using slang for being proud. "I don't want to be scared of anything."