Citizenship 101

For high-school students joining the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), it’s the beginning of a military career, or at least a stepping stone to a stint in the service. But in a region of South Carolina with a rich military and patriotic history, JROTC is transforming the lives of juveniles who might not even be eligible to enlist. In the cities of Columbia and Camden, at-risk youth are entering JROTC programs not necessarily as an introduction to the military but as a means of rehabilitation and learning discipline.The initiative began in the early 1990s, when the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in Columbia started an ROTC program within its walls to help mold the juvenile offenders into productive citizens. Later, the Continuous Learning Center (CLC), an alternative-learning school that takes in local youth with behavioral or academic problems, opened in nearby Camden with a similar purpose. Students are re-assigned to the CLC, where those who are old enough participate in a fully functioning JROTC unit that aims to reform them, so they can return to their original schools.Two decades later, the outlook is grim for both programs. The economic downturn and a series of budget cuts have hit the CLC and the DJJ hard, threatening radical changes and possible closure. Fortunately, a group of loyal Legionnaires has been there for both programs, helping them stay afloat by providing financial support, volunteering their time and knowledge as former military, and mentoring at-risk juveniles.James Leroy Belk Post 17 in Camden frequently hosts JROTC cadets for formal dinners and ceremonies and donates school supplies, new uniforms and formalwear. And post members go out of their way to attend JROTC functions, giving direct counsel to the young people.“We try to help them in any way we can,” says Jim Rabon, Post 17’s first vice commander. “It’s important to us that they see there are people out there who care.”Rabon and other Legionnaires often make the 30-mile trek from Camden to the DJJ, a juvenile prison enclosed by razor wire. Their presence is welcomed, as the volunteer-heavy facility has lost 31 percent of its budget and could lose up to 43 percent.“(Budget cuts) are going to be bigger this year, and they are going to be huge next year,” says Judge William Byars, state director of South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice and a member of Post 17. “We haven’t seen anything like what we are up against.”Cadets’ parents and family members are invited to drill exercises and formal dinners, but few attend. Most of the cadets come from broken homes. Often, Post 17’s veterans are the only ones supporting them.“The Legionnaires are always here,” explains Randy Grant, a deputy director at the DJJ and member of Post 6 in Columbia. “I think they enjoy it as much as the kids enjoy having them. It very much is an adopted-parent kind of situation. I think they are proud of the fact that these young men and women are interested in the military.”A bond forms as each Legionnaire connects with one or two cadets and discusses the privilege of serving and the importance of contributing to society. “We need to get them back to being productive citizens, and the only way we can do that is to work with them and show them how to live,” says Joseph Kliebert, Post 17’s co-chaplain.At the post, members host “dining outs,” where a select group of well-behaved and well-decorated cadets are invited to flag-raisings. There, they have a chance to interact with veterans and enjoy a home-cooked meal. For some, it’s their first time outside the DJJ’s walls since their incarceration.“Some of these kids will sit there with the veterans and be like, ‘What? You really did that?’” says 1st Sgt. Elvis Everett, a JROTC instructor. “They have a good time going down there.”At a dinner last fall, Post 17 introduced cadets to retired Army Col. Charles P. Murray, who received the Medal of Honor during World War II for single-handedly attacking and defeating a German infantry force that outnumbered his platoon. Four cadets squeezed into three chairs across from Murray at a table to hear his war stories.“They were thrilled to be able to talk to a Medal of Honor recipient,” Grant says. “That was quite an experience for them.”Post 17’s members have just as much of a presence at the CLC, where they help with classroom and JROTC activities. Students interview the veterans about their war experiences and draft “written expressions” based on their conversations with the former servicemembers. Legionnaires also help score ROTC drills and assist cadets in performing color-guard activities.Unfortunately, the CLC’s future is in question thanks to a county education budget that is 20 percent less than it was two years ago. Located in a small and dingy building across the street from the city’s main high school, the CLC might have to close its doors and send its students to an alternative program at Camden High School. “I’m scared we are going to shortchange a generation of kids,” Kershaw County Schools Superintendent Frank Morgan says. “I’m not sure the public gets that yet.”In the spirit of JROTC’s citizenship-based objectives, CLC students have teamed up with the Legion to help meet the needs of DJJ cadets. Melissa Osborne, who acts as Post 17’s liaison to the two JROTC groups, recently coordinated a charity drive to procure new clothes for cadets whose time at the DJJ is up. CLC cadets asked their community for clothing donations, and Legionnaires from Post 17 delivered them to the DJJ in Columbia.The biggest event for both JROTC units is Veterans Day. Every year, Post 17 hosts a ceremony that includes JROTC cadets from the CLC, the DJJ, Camden High School and the Camden Military Academy. About 300 cadets attend and march in Post 17’s lot, which hosts local and state community leaders and military supporters. The day gets live coverage on two different radio stations and, weather permitting, a military flyover.“We know not to worry about the bleachers, chairs and other details,” Osborne said. “CLC will have them all set up, and guards will be posted to keep people and students organized.”Whether they’re presenting medals, filling an otherwise-empty grandstand or providing some much-needed counsel, Post 17’s Legionnaires are doing all they can to support JROTC cadets in Columbia and Camden. They know that with guidance, many of these troubled teens can end up on the right path.“If you don’t pay for them now, you’ll pay for them later,” Rabon says. “It’s better to save some of these souls, so to speak – impart some knowledge and maybe change them so they go on to be productive citizens.”  Andy Romey is assistant Web editor for The American Legion.