BREWER, Maine — Retired 1st Sgt. John McKim knows what its like to be a teenager in a troubled family. He was 16 and homeless when he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army in 1971.
“I was living on the streets of Los Angeles and I decided to get off the streets and out of the gangs,” McKim said Monday as students in the U.S. Army Junior ROTC program at Nokomis High School lined up in a Wilson Street parking lot for the Veterans Day Parade.
McKim founded the program at the Newport school 19 years ago so that teenagers struggling to belong and needing to learn leadership skills could find what he found in the military but at an earlier age while earning a high school diploma. It consistently has a greater percentage of students involved than any other program in the state, he said.
“It’s a program designed for those kids that don’t fit with basketball, baseball, football and all that other stuff,” he said. “They become their own world, their own family.”
Seventy-three students belong to the Nokomis program, McKim said. All but four of them were able to march in Monday’s parade to honor veterans.
“I like the order of it and how we’re like a big family and how organized it is,” Kaitlyn Philbrick, 16, of Etna said when asked why she’d joined the program.
Bangor High School has the largest JROTC program in the state with about 100 cadets. Since 2004, the group has been responsible for organizing the annual parade.
Cadet Lt. Col Derek Kennedy, the battalion commander at Bangor High School, said it took about a month of intense work to get ready for the parade, but the planning process was part of the group’s yearly activities.
U.S. Army JROTC programs also are part of the curriculums at high schools in Hermon, Old Town, South Hiram and Standish, among others.
The U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was created in 1916 with the passage of the National Defense Act, according to information posted on its website. Under its provisions, high schools could accept the loan of federal military equipment and the assignment of active duty military personnel as instructors.
In 1964, the law opened JROTC up to the other services and replaced most of the active-duty instructors with retired members of the armed forces, who worked for and whose costs are shared by the schools. There is one Junior Navy ROTC program in the state, at Massabesic High School in Waterboro. U.S. Air Force Junior ROTC programs are at high schools in Lewiston and Brewer.
Military training in the schools has deep roots in Bangor, the first city in the country to adopt military training in its public school system. Bangor High School’s Junior ROTC program is a direct outgrowth of the establishment of military drills during the Civil War, according to information posted on the school’s website.
From 1862 until 1898 the unit was known as the Volunteer Drill Company, and members wore a gray uniform. The boys furnished their own uniforms and equipment. In 1919 Bangor High School was designated as one of the first Junior ROTC units in the nation.
The study of ethics, citizenship, communications, leadership, life skills and other subjects designed to prepare young men and women to take their place in adult society evolved as the core of the program. More recently, an improved curriculum focusing on character building and civic responsibility is being presented in every JROTC classroom, according to information on the U.S. Army ROTC website.
Retired Senior Chief Peter Jordan, who leads the Massabesic Navy program, said that most students join to learn more about citizenship and to learn leadership skills. He said the unit’s color guard is in demand for community functions.
“Most of them join because they really want some kind of leadership training,” Retired Senior Master Sgt. Anthony Campbell, who leads the Brewer program, said Monday before the parade. “They want to belong to an organization other than the football team or a sports team and this gives them a way of joining something a little different and they can do it all four years.”
Campbell, who said Florida was home, followed his father into the military. He retired to Kenduskeag after 26 years in the Air Force and helped started the program at Brewer High School in 2007.
“When I retired, I wanted to give back a little bit to get someone to understand why I joined,” he said. “I figured ROTC would be a good way to do that. I’ve been teaching for 17 years in and out of the military and I’ve loved every day of it.”
Being part of a JROTC program does not mean students go on to join the military, McKim said. Very few students over the years from Nokomis have joined after graduating, he said.
At Bangor High School, 50 percent of students in the JROTC program have gone into the military since Sept. 11, 2001, according to information on the school website. Numerous cadets also have received ROTC scholarships to universities and appointments to the military academies.
Statistics about the number of students who join the military after being part of JROTC program were not readily available.