American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt reviews first-year and second-year cadets during a SHAPE American High School Junior ROTC practice Wednesday in Belgium. Photo by Jeff Stoffer/The American Legion

In SHAPE with Junior ROTC

Nearly 20 percent of the 330 students attending the SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) American High School in Belgium participate in the Air Force Junior ROTC program there.

The cadets learn survival skills, military history, protocol, leadership, communications, community service and even personal finance in the classroom curriculum. And at 7:30 a.m.each day, 90 minutes before other students start classes, the award-winning SHAPE JROTC drill team can be found out on the school courtyard, marching, saluting, twirling and catching M1 Garand rifles, hoping to extend an unprecedented five-year European drill team championship streak, competing against 11 other high schools across the continent. The American Legion in Belgium supports the program with awards and in other ways.

First-year cadets practiced Wednesday before top American Legion Family leaders visiting the SHAPE-NATO community this week in Europe.

"We have a lot of dedicated kids and parents who are involved in the lives of their children," said Advanced Aerospace Science Instructor Chief Master Sgt. Jose Lopes, senior enlisted leader of the program. "Our cadets are also very well integrated into the community."

Chief Lopes, a member of The American Legion, is particularly proud of a fast-filling trophy case inside the newly rebuilt high school building where students - about 60 percent American and 40 percent international - pursue their diplomas.

Senior Aerospace Science Instructor Lt. Col. John Arias, U.S. Air Force, retired, has supervised the program at SHAPE for the last five years. "I am just blessed to have the chief, the support of the principal and the community," he says.

"The secret to our success in competition is we are the only school that drills in the morning before school starts, so over half of our team is in an after-school sport, too."

Arias also has time to coach girls soccer after school at the SHAPE American High School.

"For a small school, we have a lot going on," Lopes says, noting that the high school also has a superior culinary program, a visual arts program that has been recognized by the Smithsonian Institute and a successful music curriculum.

Most of the students, whether they make the jump from Junior ROTC to college ROTC or not, are well-positioned for higher education, including some to the military academies.

American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt, Sons of The American Legion National Commander Jeff Frain and American Legion Auxiliary National President Mary Davis - along with American Legion department leaders - applauded the young cadets as they practiced Wednesday. Following one drill, Schmidt gave each cadet one of his pins and extended gratitude for the commitment. "Thank you, sir!" the cadets responded, one after the next.

The SHAPE drill team will try to defend its European title in November at Lakenheath, England, and will host a competition in March 2018.

While the team competes in drill competitions on active-duty installations and in ceremonies at SHAPE, Junior ROTC students in Europe are prohibited to be in uniform off base, for security reasons.