It was picture day at Forestville Military Academy, and Cpl. Kevin Chapman and his fellow JROTC cadets were being fitted with ties and fancy jackets.
Kevin, who already looks military at 15, helped another student put a tie around the light-green collar of his Class B uniform, then smoothed the jacket of another, then turned to the business of knotting the tie around his own neck.
As dozens of cadets in crisply pressed shirts, knife-creased green slacks and spit-shined shoes preened, they morphed from cadets to teenagers.
"Let's at ease some the noise, cadets!" Sgt. 1st Class Milton McLean, a JROTC instructor, admonished the students. "We are still conducting business."
As the armed forces are under intense pressure to recruit for service in the Middle East and elsewhere, Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) programs such as the one at Forestville have come under scrutiny by some who believe the curriculum is a thinly veiled attempt to encourage young people to enlist.
Heightening that concern were the deaths last month of two former cadets, Army Spec. Toccara R. Green and Sgt. Damion Campbell, both 23 and both award-winning graduates of a Baltimore JROTC program in 2000. They were killed within 12 days of each other -- she in Iraq, he in Afghanistan.
Military officials and school administrators have said the program is not a recruitment tool but rather a means to instill such values as honor, respect and responsibility in young people. Students receive no instruction in weaponry, military tactics or other specifics of the armed services, supporters said.
Still, the Army acknowledges that the programs can help attract soldiers.
"Though not a recruiting program, the expansion of Army Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs . . . may help motivate young Americans toward military service," according to the Army's Web site. "These programs educate America's youth about the military while providing them with the discipline and values that will contribute to their future success."
Retired Col. Franklin Collins, the instructor who taught Green and Campbell at Baltimore's Forest Park High School, said he cannot shake the sense that his program led them to careers in military service, which cost them their lives.
"I don't think either were concerned about the personal-danger aspect of going into the military, but they were aware of it," he said. "I made sure my students knew it. While you may want a career, it's not a day in the park."
Across the nation, the numbers of high schools and students involved in JROTC for the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy have more than doubled in the past 15 years.
Last year, there were 3,184 such programs in high schools, compared with 1,493 in 1990. The number of students last year was slightly more than 500,000, up from 216,000 in 1990, Defense Department statistics show. The budget also skyrocketed in that period, from $65 million to almost $293 million. Officials trace the growth to lobbying in the early 1990s by Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for more programs in urban school districts.
Officials said they do not keep statistics on the number of students going into the military. An informal survey of Army JROTC students who are graduating from high school, however, indicates that about 40 percent say they are considering military service, said Paul Kotakis, chief of public affairs for the cadet command.
JROTC programs initially were more popular in urban schools, but their presence in suburban and even private schools has increased in the past 20 years. St. John's College High School in the District, a private, parochial school, offers the program. So do all of Prince George's County's public high schools. Fairfax and Prince William counties have increased the numbers of schools with JROTC in the past decade.
"JROTC is recognized as an elective by most states and high schools," said Col. Rick Zinzer, director of the Massanutten Military Academy in Virginia. Few of Massanutten's students go into the military, but all its graduates last year went on to college, he said.
"JROTC teaches leadership and citizenship, which are transferable to any profession," Zinzer said. "The traits it teaches are hallmarks of successful people, whether they are working a summer job or serving as CEO of a major company."
But critics question the program's true intent.
"There's too much of an opportunity for indoctrination here," said Doug Nelson, a member of the nonprofit Veterans for Peace, who spent four years in the Army and six in the reserves in the late 1960s. "What a young person could gain from working as a team and something like that would be better learned on an athletic team or playing in an orchestra or a band."
Reaushean McMillan, whose daughter JeShawna Wholley, 17, recently was promoted to colonel in Forestville's program, said she believes that JROTC is a recruitment tool -- and that she's all right with that.
"I think some kids actually need the military discipline to get through their lives productively," McMillan said. "I totally agree that it is an attempt to entice high school students into the military, but I am all for the program because of the fact that it has helped Forestville become a much better school."
Still, she does not want her child joining the armed forces. Likewise, Adrienne Dorsey is not eager to see her son, Kevin Chapman, enlist. But she said she is pleased with what JROTC has done for him.
Kevin, who already was an honor student, has matured since he started at Forestville last year, Dorsey said.
Kevin said he plans to attend college and become an engineer but that the idea of military service has entered his thoughts. "I guess I am thinking about the service because I could go that way and still pursue what I want to do, or I can go another route. The program gives you the choice to do several things."
Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps students help each other put on their uniforms for picture day at Forestville Military Academy in Prince George's County. Above, Cadet Joseph Crockett, far left, Cpl. Erin Bowyer and others stand as Cadet Howard Crumpe, right, leads a JROTC class's at Forestville Military Academy.