Taking your pants off, JROTC students learned this week, is the most practical, if not most intrepid, way to survive in the water without a life jacket. Just tie up the pant legs, hook them around your head, choke the waist so the legs fill with air, and float.
The survival course triggered a mix of laughter and nervousness from the high school students visiting the military base in Caroline County. But for many Army JROTC students enrolled in the annual "Camp Success," the lessons learned this week will never be put to use in the armed forces. Despite their involvement in the officers training program, many say the war in Iraq and other world dangers will keep them out of the military.
Just as military recruiting is down across the country, the excitement for a career in the services is waning even among JROTC cadets. The number of students participating in JROTC programs across the country has soared by more than 80 percent, from nearly 270,000 in 1994 to more than 501,000 in 2004, according to the Defense Department. But a recent study of Army JROTC students, which military officials consider to be true for all services, shows that about 30 percent of JROTC cadets say they intend to join the military.
"I just thought the uniforms were nice and JROTC would look better on my [college] application," said Minh Tran, 14, who will be a sophomore at Fairfax County's Thomas Edison High School in the fall. "But it's really fun. You get to shoot at the end of the year and learn survival [techniques] and first aid. One kid in my French class asked me, 'When are they sending you to Iraq?,' and I just kind of laughed it off. I want to go into the pharmaceutical business. I don't like blood. I'm more of a book kind of person."
That sentiment was echoed by several students at Camp Success, a voluntary week-long program for Washington area students in which they live on the base's barracks and participate in several training workshops, including navigation and rappelling. JROTC -- Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps -- is offered as an elective at hundreds of high schools nationwide, with a curriculum focused on military history, the Constitution and leadership training.
At Camp Success, where cadets wake up before dawn for long runs and do several push-ups throughout the day, students said they routinely consider the perils confronting U.S. soldiers abroad. On a recent day in the base's mess hall, over chicken and pizza, a group of students talked about those thoughts creeping into their minds as they undergo the camp's physical tests.
"When you're going through the obstacle course, the first thing you think about is basic training," said James Crowder, 17, of the District, who attends Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, Va. "When I tripped on a wire, I thought, 'If that was real, I'd be dead.' "
Larry Howe, 15, of Loudoun County, who is leaving Massanutten to attend Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, nodded in agreement: "They don't get a second chance."
"You have to worry about the small things," said George Oley, 14, who attends Benedictine High School in Richmond and wants to attend medical school or become a dentist.
Other students acknowledge the headlines about dead soldiers coming home from battle but want to sign up, believing it is their duty.
Matt Benson, 16, a junior at Woodbridge High School in Prince William County, said he wants to become a Marine, no question about it: "My father was a Marine. They're an elite fighting force, and I want to work with the best."
Standing inside his barracks, Michael Ssenyonga, 18, also a student at Woodbridge High School, said the war does not scare him because he was raised amid violence in Uganda before immigrating to the United States. "Back in Africa, there used to be warlords, and I saw that growing up, so I got used to that," Ssenyonga said. "I want to put in a good 24 years. I want to be a politician, and I figure you need to show you can serve your country."
Students at Camp Success, now in its 16th year, said they enjoy their JROTC courses. The instructors, retired from the military, serve as both coach and confidant, keeping on the students for their grades and listening to their personal problems.
"That's a unique thing with the JROTC. We become their surrogate parents," said Franklyn Matthews, a retired Army colonel who oversees the program at Woodbridge High School. "They tend to depend on us. They'll discuss things with us that they wouldn't with their parents. One kid confided in me that she thought a parent was an alcoholic, and others have told me about abuse going on or whether they're pregnant."
At Camp Success, the JROTC students can usually be seen in their BDUs -- camouflage battle dress uniforms -- marching in formation, polishing their combat boots with toothbrushes or competing in various missions.
One course requires a cadet to lead a squad out of a "prisoner of war" camp with limited time and supplies. In another session, students rode in a Blackhawk helicopter.
In the marksmanship course, cadets practice their aim with a rifle, albeit a Daisy armed with pellets.
Still, on a recent day, instructor Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Willie gave Aaron Westerfield, 15, of Waldorf, a tough time.
"Squeeze -- there you go. You're still shooting to the right," Willie said to the high school junior, ordering him to aim left. "Are you going to do that?"
"Yeah," Westerfield said quietly, taking aim.
"Yes, Sergeant," Willie barked back. "Isn't that what you meant to say?