Hopewell’s JROTC ‘aim high’ as they go for five championships

by Alan Hodge

JROTC Cadet Capt. Ben James, left, and Cadet Master Sgt. Linda Wills pose in front of the trophy case at Hopewell High School housing several of the program’s awards. The JROTC program will compete for its fifth Superintendent’s Cup, an award given to the top performing JROTC program in the state in a number of categories.

People who think that high school Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps students just wear a spiffy uniform and march in unison would be surprised to discover nothing could be farther from the truth – especially when it comes to Hopewell High in Huntersville.

Led by instructors Col. Mike Puckett, Command Sgt. Major Cleveland Penn, and 1st Sgt. Daniel Ferriero, the 186 cadets who participate in Hopewell High’s U.S. Army JROTC program do get to wear a uniform and march around, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg to the award-winning program.

An elective course, the JROTC program includes students 14 to 18-years-old and is designed above all to help students gain a high school diploma and become better citizens in the bargain.

The Hopewell High JROTC program has roots that go back nearly a century.

“The JROTC can trace its beginning back to the National Defense Act of 1916,” Puckett said. “It was a community service for the army and promoted graduation from high school. It helped better society and helped the U.S. Army get better kids.”

According to Puckett, only about 3 to 4 percent of high school students overall go into a JROTC program at their school. Not all of those will go into the military service.

“Out of 100 students who begin JROTC as freshmen, only about 10 will join the military,” Puckett said.

Currently, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have 12 Army JROTC programs, five for the U.S. Air Force, two for the U.S. Navy, and one for the U.S. Coast Guard. Students can join or quit the JROTC program at the end of the school year.

“The kids can start and stop in any year during their time in high school,” Puckett said. “But once signed up, they are in for that year. This is not a club.”

One Hopewell JROTC student in for the long haul is Cadet Capt. Ben James, 16-year-old son of Mike and Linda James of Huntersville.

“In eighth grade at Bailey Middle School I saw a JROTC presentation,” James said. “It inspired me from the moment I saw it. Being in the program at Hopewell has made me a better person. It makes a man a good man, someone who can be trusted and relied upon.”

James plans a career with the U.S. Coast Guard after graduation.

The Hopewell JROTC programs are also highly popular with parents.

“After they see the program, a lot of parents want their kids to have the life skills we teach,” Puckett said. “A lot of kids don’t get values instruction.”

The life skills Puckett cited are based on the U.S. Army’s core values. These include loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.

Then there’s the uniform. It’s obvious from observing how they carry themselves in class or in the hallway, that Hopewell High JROTC cadets are proud of their uniform.

“The uniform gives them a sense of belonging,” Puckett said. “It makes them a cohesive unit.”

No matter what the clothes, JROTC is mainly about the classroom.

“It’s 95 percent academic,” Puckett said. “We have a 100 percent graduation rate.”

According to Puckett, if JROTC cadets start slipping in their grades, they are teamed up with tutors.

“We look at grades across the board,” Puckett said. “We counsel and tutor them if need be. It can be teacher or peer tutoring.”

Besides the classroom and drill aspect of Hopewell High’s JROTC program, there is also a competitive side to things. Each year, Hopewell cadets take part in what’s known as the Superintendent’s Cup, a series of scored events that includes activities from military drill to softball. For the past four years, Hopewell High JROTC cadets have won the illustrious overall championship.

“Next year we are going for five in a row,” Puckett said.

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