Nassau County comes together for JROTC cadets
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville
For Air Force Col. Don Kline, a Nassau County JROTC classroom is a lifetime away from scouring North Vietnam for targets in an F-4 Phantom.
Instead of dodging surface-to-air missiles, the former Top Gun-trained pilot is fighting to save the West Nassau High School program after a series of government cutbacks in funding.
“We got a total of about $12,000 a year [from the Air Force],” Kline said. “That money has trickled down to almost nothing.”
With base operating costs of $28,000 per year, that’s nearly half its program’s funding.
The instructors of the year-round program, Kline and Chief Master Sgt. Ed Spezio, also had two months of pay cut by the Air Force. But in almost every way, Kline, Nassau County, the students and their parents have picked up where the federal government left off.
“We are fortunate that we have a School Board and a superintendent that are so supportive,” he said. “They stepped in and picked up the two months salary.”
Though the local government has stepped up, the Nassau County community as a whole has taken a direct interest in Kline’s cadets.
“We’re making it because we have great support from the community,” Kline said.
Veterans groups including Vietnam Veterans of America, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars to businesses like RPM Automotive and Whataburger have all helped raise or donate money.
Even with the help, Kline has made sure the cadets shoulder their own burden.
The students perform a virtual laundry list of fundraisers to pay their way with candy sales, car washes and parking services for events. They also logged over 3,000 hours of community service last year to give back to the county that’s done so much for them.
The program has been through its growing pains. When Kline arrived in 2005, the class had about 50 students — far below the 100 required for Air Force funding. The program was on probation and at risk of closing for good.
“Last year we had 174 and had to turn away 67,” he said.
The majority of the cadets will never serve a day in the military. Kline will not even allow recruiters to speak to a cadet unless he or she is a senior and has expressed an interest in joining. Still, Kline accompanies them.
“Recruiters don’t have any business talking to my underclassmen,” he said. “Because they have no clue what they’re going to wear to school tomorrow, much less what they’re going to do when they graduate.”
Though military service may not be standard operating procedure for the program, performance is. The cadets have higher attendance, fewer disciplinary problems and attend college at a higher rate than their peers at West Nassau.
The Air Force JROTC group commander, Heidi Hetzel, will be attending the University of Florida next year on a full academic scholarship and largely credits the program.
“It’s given me so much. It’s given me responsibility and a sense of leadership,” she said.