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‘Selfless service’: JROTC remembers three slain in Florida high school shooting

Madison Geller, 17, and Angelyse Perez, 18, remember JROTC cadets who died after a gunman opened fire at Marjory Sonteman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Whitney Shefte, Alice Li/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

PARKLAND, Fla. — Nikolas Cruz was wearing his old maroon Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps polo shirt when he allegedly slipped into his former high school last week carrying an assault-style rifle in a black bag. Authorities say it was an attempt to blend in.

Cruz had trained with the U.S. Army JROTC, one of the largest and most popular groups on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School campus. As a cadet, he had served on a marksmanship team, honing his skills with an air rifle. He had wanted to one day serve in the U.S. armed forces.

The lives lost in the Parkland school shooting

The attack Cruz is alleged to have unleashed on the school Wednesday killed 17 people, including three JROTC members, sending a tragic ripple through the group of 275 students and highlighting their courage under fire. JROTC members are credited with using their training to help barricade students inside classrooms and with helping others escape. JROTC member Peter Wang, 15, was killed putting himself at risk, holding a door open so that others might survive. He was shot before he could get to safety.

Peter’s sacrifice was, as current members put it, an example of the “selfless service” JROTC embraces.

“That’s the biggest act of kindness he could ever do,” said Cadet Capt. Angelyse Perez, an 18-year-old senior and the Bravo Company commander.

Alaina Petty, 14, and Martin Duque, 14, other members of the JROTC at Douglas, were also shot and killed in the rampage.

JROTC, a national program that includes more than 300,000 students in 1,700 schools, encourages “leadership, teamwork, character education, personal responsibility, a sense of accomplishment, and service to the nation” and includes as part of its creed: “I am the future of the United States of America.”

In the days since the shooting, Angelyse and Cadet Capt. Madison Geller, squad commander of the female color guard, wanted to get together with family to try to understand what happened and to seek comfort from one another. And when they talk about family, they mean more than just parents and siblings. Angelyse and Madison — best friends, constant confidantes — wanted to get their JROTC battalion together to help process the tragedy as best they could.

“We planned a little memorial potluck at my house,” said Madison, 17, a junior. “First it was going to be 10 people.”

But texts went out, calls came in, and they ended up with 200 people connected to the Douglas JROTC unit, including current members, past members, parents, and U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.).

“I didn’t want to say no to anybody,” Madison said.

For nearly eight hours, they talked. The color guard team from a nearby high school presented the colors — Alaina was a member of the Douglas color guard — and a member of the gathering sang the national anthem. Another played taps. They shared stories about the cadets they lost: Alaina, with her bright smile, who just a few days ago was excited to be planning her first color guard competition; Peter with his ebullient personality and wit; Martin with his fun-loving spirit.

“It went from sad to happy back to sad,” Madison said. “It was like a roller coaster of emotions.”

Peter’s parents were proud of his JROTC membership, family friend Jesse Pan said. Peter died in his JROTC uniform, which members of the group usually wore on Wednesdays.

“They didn’t know what it was until he explained it to them,” Pan said. “He told them it was about building good character, teaching them leadership and how to be a better citizen. He really liked ROTC. Every time he put his uniform on, his parents would want to take a picture.”

Now his brothers are wondering what happened, Pan said, especially 5-year-old Alex.

“He keeps asking, ‘When will Peter be home?’ ” Pan said.

Alaina’s family likewise cited her service to the community and her JROTC membership as central to her short life.

“Alaina was a vibrant and determined young woman, loved by all who knew her,” her family said in a statement. “Alaina loved to serve. She served her community through her participation in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas JROTC program and her countless hours of service as a volunteer for the ‘Helping Hands’ program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Alaina was part of hundreds of volunteers that rushed to the most heavily impacted areas of Florida to clean up and help rebuild the lives of those devastated by Hurricane Irma. Her selfless service brought peace and joy to those that had lost everything during the storm.”

Martin came from a “family that likes to help everybody,” said Adam Roitman, a friend of the Duques. He was “an amazing person” and “loved everybody,” Roitman said.

Along with many students at the school, several other JROTC members have been lauded for their bravery in the face of a mass shooter. Zackary Walls and Colton Haab rushed fellow students into the JROTC room on campus, barricaded the door and set up a shield made of Kevlar curtains. Jude Lenamon, 15, is credited with staying calm and helping panicked students get through a fence instead of climbing over it after recognizing that the incident wasn’t a fire drill.

“That sounds like gunshots,” Jude told a teacher as they walked across the football field.

During the rampage, Madison was in a front office, with other JROTC members, getting ready for an inspection that was scheduled for the next day. She remembers how exposed the room was — two big windows, with blinds that wouldn’t pull down. She remembers the terror she felt when somebody banged on the door and violently rattled the door handle.

“It was the SWAT team, but we didn’t know that at first,” Madison said.

Angelyse spent the lockdown on the floor of the auditorium, squeezed between two seats.

“I don’t have siblings at the school, but I kept trying to reach her,” she said, pointing to Madison.

Teachers say Florida suspect’s problems started in middle school, and the system tried to help him

Madison and Angelyse said they remember the accused shooter, Cruz, but barely. He took the one class required to be in the battalion but didn’t do much else and left after less than a year. Madison said Cruz was on the marksmanship team with her, but she doesn’t remember talking with him.

“We’re shooting air rifles, just kind of fancier BB guns; they’re not dangerous,” Madison said. “If you don’t pass the safety test 100 percent, you’re not allowed to be on the team. I passed with 100, and he passed with 100. I went to competitions, but he never did.”

Kimberly and James Snead, a couple who allowed Cruz to live with them in recent months, said they knew Cruz had weapons — including the rifle he is alleged to have used in the shootings — but he kept them locked in a gun safe, according to an interview the Sneads did with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. They told the newspaper that Cruz wanted to be an Army infantryman and was “excited” when an Army recruiter visited his school.

JROTC groups sometimes draw scrutiny on school campuses because of the group’s connection to firearms and the military. The National Rifle Association’s fundraising and charitable arm gave $10,827 in noncash assistance to the Douglas JROTC in 2016, according to the Associated Press. The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.

After Cruz, 19, made his first appearance at the Broward County Courthouse on Thursday, two men staged a small protest outside the courtroom. They held signs demanding that JROTC be kicked off campus and to “Get the NRA out of Our Schools!”

Protests during the past few days, as well as social media posts, show that many Douglas students are becoming active in supporting gun control. A speech at a Saturday rally in Fort Lauderdale by Emma Gonzalez, a student at Douglas, took on the NRA and demanded action from President Trump.

Emma sits across from Angelyse in English class. Angelyse said she and Madison see no conflict between their beloved battalion and the demands Emma and others are making. She believes Cruz should not have been allowed to purchase the AR-15 assault-style rifle allegedly used in the attack.

“It’s our right as American citizens to be vocal, to speak out about whatever you think is wrong or whatever you think is right,” Angelyse said. “She was saying, it’s not only gun control, it’s mental health. You need to equally balance the two. He should not have got a gun. It needs to be more difficult to get a gun, I agree with that.”

And they agree that the fact that Cruz was once a member of JROTC should not reflect negatively on the group. They hate that he wore one of the group’s shirts while allegedly committing the rampage.

“It was just to blend in, to look like a student,” Angelyse said. “We all have those shirts. We’re never wearing them again. We’re going to destroy them all.”