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At High School in Queens, R.O.T.C.’s Enduring Influence

Susan Notes:

When I saw the subject matter here, I told myself, 'Well, here's one Winerip column I won't post.' I was wrong. Leave it to Winerip to find such a positive JROTC program. Not only do I post it, I post it with joy that such a program exists.

By Michael Winerip

In 1994, when retired First Sgt. Richard Gogarty arrived at Francis Lewis High School in Queens to start an Army Junior R.O.T.C. program, only two staff members, one of them a custodian, would talk to him. The sergeant sat by himself in the teachersâ cafeteria, hoping someone would say something, even if it was just âplease pass the salt.â

The union representative, Arthur Goldstein, did not want him there. âI said, âOh my God, heâs going to have kids marching in circles doing stupid stuff,â â recalled Mr. Goldstein, who teaches English to immigrant students and describes himself as âpolitically to the left.â

But Sergeant Gogarty, using his military training, disarmed Mr. Goldstein, volunteering to come in an hour early each day to tutor a Hispanic girl who was failing. âShe was completely lost,â Mr. Goldstein said. âBut something clicked. She started passing tests â it was Richard reading with her in the morning.â

Every year since, the Reserve Officers Training Corps program has grown. With 741 students, it is the largest of the 1,725 high school chapters in the country. Francis Lewis has more graduates at West Point â 15 â than any other school this year except for one near the academy that serves military families. In 17 years, no senior in the program has dropped out of school.

At national J.R.O.T.C. drill competitions, Francis Lewis dominates. One of the unitâs trophies is taller than Musa Ali Shama, the principal, who keeps it beside his desk. The junior cadetsâ purposefulness sets the tone for the entire school, Mr. Shama said. âR.O.T.C. has the biggest impact of any program in our school,â he said. âNothing comes close.â

The high point of Christina Liuâs life so far was being part of the squad that won the national unarmed drill competition last year in Florida. âI probably had pure happiness for 10 minutes,â she said. âI was able to experience a first place in my lifetime. What person can say that?â Until her first competition, Christina had never left Queens; with R.O.T.C., she has been to seven states.

As much as they like R.O.T.C., most do not want to enlist in the service. âThe military â I donât think thatâs for me,â said Glen Higgins, a junior who is a member of the drum corps. âI donât want to end up going to Iraq and risk my life or something.â Christina, one of the highest-ranked cadets, wants to be a pharmacist. âMy mom always wanted me to be one,â she said. âYou get to stand behind a counter all day and thereâs not much stress.â

Sergeant Gogarty is the antithesis of the high-pressured military recruiter out to fill a quota. âIf they say theyâre going to enlist when they graduate, I tell them to go to college first,â he said. Only one or two students a year go straight into the Army.

The program â which has a staff of six retired service members teaching 23 classes a day focusing on things like community service and public speaking â costs $1 million a year, $180,000 of which is paid by the city.

Francis Lewis is so crowded â 4,000 students in a building meant for about 2,500 â that J.R.O.T.C. usually cannot get the gym, so cadets often have lengthy training sessions on Saturdays. Its drill teams use the cafeteria, but cannot practice the rifle toss, which could punch holes in the ceiling. Membership reflects the schoolâs demographics: half are Asian, 20 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black and 15 percent white; 99 percent go on to college. On Wednesdays, all 741 wear their uniforms to school.

âIt gives you something to look forward to,â said David Artega, a senior. The military chain of command teaches them discipline, leadership and responsibility. âYou learn you have to be on top of yourself,â said Ashley Schwartz, a senior.

Sergeant Gogarty knows his students are prepared when the Rockettes start to look sloppy to them. âNot enough economy of movement,â he said.

The senior cadets watch the freshmen make the same mistakes each year. âThey think theyâre fine the way they are,â David said. Sergeant Gogarty teaches them: not by a long shot. In the beginning, they are afraid of Sergeant Gogarty. âThey think I know all their names and what theyâre up to,â he said. âI donât, but I let them think I do.â

Once he remembers, he does not forget. Dana Walcott, the daughter of the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, went through the program in the 1990s. âDana was a platoon leader,â Sergeant Gogarty said. âShe was enthusiastic and focused. She loved to cook and bake.â

Jaisy Kim had no idea that he would pick her to be the unitâs public information officer, what she called âa big honor.â âI felt like nobody was watching me,â she said. âI didnât think he knew me. But all the actions I did somehow helped.â

âI noticed,â Sergeant Gogarty said. âI started watching very hard in January.â

The J.R.O.T.C. room, 219, is one of the few places where a freshman like Brian Eco can talk to a real-life senior like Ashley. âShe motivates young students like me,â Brian said. âShe does not make mistakes, her uniform is tight.â

Several mentioned that the program helped them overcome shyness. âBefore, I couldnât give a speech to 30 people,â Tom Saini, a senior, said. âNow I can do 500, easy.â

Frank Chang said he was âone of those Asians kids sitting in the corner who doesnât talk to anybody.â Not only were all the J.R.O.T.C. activities good for getting him out of the corner, but they helped him build his résumé for college. âIt got me up to two pages.â

Sergeant Gogarty no longer has to recruit. Jennifer Lewis was a member of the first cadet class, in 1994, and this year her daughter, Kiera, joined. Most likely next will be her little brother, Jaden, a fourth grader. âHe loves staring at all my ribbons,â Kiera, a sophomore, said. âHe keeps asking, âWhatâs this one for? Whatâs that one for?â â

Memorial Day weekend the cadets marched all over Queens, in five parades. âMy last parade,â said Frank, who will attend Queens College in the fall, âa lot of things went through my head. I wanted to enjoy it, seize the moment.â

Mr. Goldstein, the union representative, said he had not heard anything disparaging about the program for years. âNo one works harder than the R.O.T.C. instructors,â he said. âIf I leave the school at 6 p.m., thereâs always an R.O.T.C. teacher standing outside with 200 kids.â

He was surprised last year, when his daughter announced she was joining the J.R.O.T.C. program at her school. She told her father she wants to be a Marine.


— Michael Winerip
New York Times



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