EAST COUNTY — Jose Solis, a Braden River High senior commanding a 13-member square of unarmed men, approaches a 100-foot-by-100-foot box.
He stops in front of a judge standing in the middle of the box, and Solis stands at ease, feet shoulder-width apart, fingers interlaced behind his back, head high.
“Braden River High School’s unarmed platoon is prepared to conduct the unarmed platoon sequence, sir,” Solis recites, a formal permission slip demanded by the Army to enter the judge’s box.
Permission granted. Solis enters the box.
As the commander, he’s supposed to be the only voice in a silent box, but his thumping heartbeat threatens to betray him.
Before accepting more responsibility and commanding the same platoon with which he’s marched for four years, Solis marched with his fellow platoon members behind Billy Heller, the former platoon commander. As a platoon member his thoughts were focused on the 36 to 46 commands he had to mimic; blinking eyelids were the only movement on his face.
Now, he’s commanding the box, yelling.
“There’s pressure with you the whole way,” Solis said. “Did I do good? Bad? What did I do?”
Solis did well — and so did 69 other cadets on Braden River High School’s Junior Reserves Officer Training Corps (JROTC) drill team.
Solis’ first-place male unarmed platoon was one of nine state champion squads on Braden River’s drill team.
At the April 6 state drill meet, held at George W. Jenkins High School, in Lakeland, Braden River’s JROTC drill team, which started in 2005 with the school’s opening, won nine of 18 events.
The event doesn’t award an overall state champion, but the nine 3.5-foot-tall black-and-gold trophies that line a JROTC classroom at Braden River tell a different story.
Code of conduct
The structure of JROTC, a United States Army program, is designed to teach high school students the value of citizenship, leadership and service to the community.
“It’s our own little world,” says senior Jocelyn Steele, commander of a state champion female platoon exhibition.
For one, the program doesn’t serve to train future members of the armed services.
Rather, it uses a military structure — hair cut to Army standards: for boys, buzzed and off the ears, and for girls, hair tied in buns; lots of yes sirs and yes ma’ams — to teach students about U.S. history, discipline and how to command a room.
JROTC’s competitive arm features three categories: drill, raiders — adventure training with push-ups, sit-ups and a 5K run — and rifles.
The drill team, the group that competed in the state drill meet, includes 13-person platoons and seven-person squads, armed — with a 12-pound rife — or unarmed.
It also has a four-person color guard, usually with two tall people carrying flags and two shorter cadets holding rifles beside them.
Within the platoon and squad umbrella are exhibitions, six-to-eight minute customized routines, more free and flashy than rigid and conforming.
Competition practice requires two hours per day, three days a week — five days a week before one of five drill competitions during the year — of after-school time.
But cadets don’t need to compete to be in JROTC. Cadets can simply take a class during the school day, just like geometry or biology.
You can’t miss a cadet in the school’s hallways.
They’re the one’s walking with their shoulders back, chest square.
They probably fold their napkin on their lap at prom and homecoming, and the boys most definitely tie their own ties before attending.
“Demeanor-wise, you can tell who a JROTC person is,” says Shelly Beettam, a junior and commander of the state champion female color guard. “We say what we need to say and do it in respectful manner.
When you see someone talking to a superior and they say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ it’s weird. Being polite becomes a habit for us.”
What is now habit was once an uncomfortable nuisance.
Alex Johansson, a senior state champion of a male exhibition squad, initially balked at the buzzed-hair requirements. As a bushy-haired eighth-grader, he thought he signed up for JROTC by accident.
“It was, ‘I don’t want to be in here,’” Johansson says. “‘What am I doing here? I don’t want to cut my hair.’ But I’m still here and I love it.”
Steele played traditional sports in elementary school.
Her mother scoffed when Steele announced she wanted to join JROTC and started carrying and throwing rifles and wearing her hair like a boy.
Now, her mother, “Mama J,” is the unofficial drill mom, respected by every cadet.
The cadets say the change of heart, their own and that of family and peers, comes from a student-run program that empowers.
LTC Jay Bradin, CSM Matt Collis and CSM Alex Figueroa, JROTC’s instructors, lead a program where’s it’s OK to occasionally get bumped on the head by a spinning rifle.
The instructors let the cadets lead the program, commanding platoons and squads, barking orders and making decisions, sometimes wrong ones that become right.
It’s a method that lets every cadet feel important.
“We are in charge, and we all want to get better, as people and performers,” said Paige Krumwiede, a Braden River junior and waterskier-turned-JROTC individual exhibition state champion. “In the high school world, freshmen are freshmen. You don’t talk to freshmen. But, here, we want to bring them out of their shell and make them a comfortable person.”
The all-inclusive model has brought success. Braden River’s JROTC drill team has won state championships every year since the school’s opening, but the team has never won like it did this year.
When 5-foot-1 Tara Baker, a junior, accepted her state champion female armed squad trophy, tears dripped onto its gold top.
She hugged the 3.5-foot trophy because it was too big to hold in her hands.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].