Green Beret in the classroom
ATHENS, Ala. - Col. Eli Ballard believes he found the perfect retirement transition from life as a tough guy in the U.S. Army special forces.
The 56-year-old became the lead instructor for the Athens High School JROTC, giving himself a chance to provide the same inspiration he received as a teenager.
Ballard has gone from serving in the Green Beret and Rangers Airborne to high school teacher. He ended his Army career as brigade commander at Redstone Arsenal.
"I'm still working with young people who are trying to discover their place in life," Ballard said.
Lt. Col. James Walker, longtime Austin High JROTC lead instructor, is a friend from Ballard's days as a brigade commander.
Walker said he's not surprised by Ballard's successes.
"Officers in general tend to gravitate toward JROTC," Walker said. "Soldiers are kids. They need the regimented order and leadership that the military requires."
Ballard chose the Athens JROTC four years ago over working for a contractor in Afghanistan. He was visiting his brigade commander replacement when Athens Principal Chris Bolin called.
Athens JROTC has been successful for close to 25 years, but cadet numbers had dropped to about 80 students.
The Athens battalion is now up to 135 cadets. It earned Honor Unit of Distinction, JROTC's highest honor, two years ago.
"I knew of Col. Ballard, and the timing was right for the both us," Bolin said. "It's very obvious his life experiences are beneficial to the students."
Bolin said Ballard's work ethic showed immediate results. He said it isn't unusual to find Ballard working at the school until 9 p.m. He tutors, provides transportation or food for students in need, and does whatever he can to help the students.
"He cares and they know it," Bolin said.
Cadet Major and Executive Officer Aaron Fielding has been in Ballard's program three of his four years in high school.
"Colonel is fair in everything he does," Fielding said.
Ballard conquered his biggest fear -- jumping out of an airplane -- in theRanger Airborne infantry. He survived life as a Green Beret because he liked the "intensity of conflict."
He said he thought he was a tough guy until he met his match in his first year as a JROTC instructor.
A cadet publicly challenged him, something that didn't occur in the military. He began to wonder if this new career was for him.
"It was all I could do to maintain my calmness," Ballard said.
Ballard said the teen eventually got in trouble and left school, but the two ran into each other later in a Huntsville store.
"He told me how much he enjoyed his class and how much he appreciated me putting up with him," Ballard said. "At that moment, I realized that I'm not always going to get immediate gratification for what I do. Teachers make a difference in the long run."
An old photo of Col. Julius Clark sits on Ballard's desk, reminding him of the impact a JROTC instructor had on him. Clark was Ballard's instructor at Camden High School in Camden, S.C.
Prior to joining Clark's program, Ballard aspired to becoming a bread truck delivery man. He didn't think he was college material.
"The Marita Bread delivery man, Mr. Fulton Davis, led a clean life and was so friendly," Ballard said. "I really thought that was the apex of success."
But Clark pushed Ballard to bigger aspirations like college and the military. Ballard earned an English degree from New Mexico Military Institute before entering the Army.
Now Ballard measures his success on Clark's standard of pushing students. He expects dependability and respect for themselves and others.
"Young people need to understand that if people can't depend on you, you've got nothing in this life," Ballard said.
Cadet Master Sgt. Andrew Saavedra said he is a military child who moved a lot, and Ballard helped adjust when he moved to Athens.
"I was always the new kid, so sometimes I would become quiet and reserved," Saavedra said. "He helped me open up and become more welcoming. He really boosted my confidence."
Fielding said Ballard talks a lot about education and building on the important things in life. He plans to attend Auburn University in the fall on the ROTC/Marine option.
"Col. Ballard really helped me through this process," Fielding said. "He particularly helped with my application essays."
Ballard is the typical reserved military man, but Bolin and Saavedra said he has a personality that draws people to him.
"People notice when he walks into a room and it becomes silent," Saavedra said.
However, Fielding said Ballard's dry humor often comes out in class.
The cadets know one thing about the 56-year-old: Never challenge him in a physical fitness competition.
"There's three of us who love to do PT, and sometimes Col. Ballard joins us," Saavedra said. "Colonel has a way of motivating us, but we can't keep up."