TAMPA — On a blustery morning at the University of Tampa, about 850 high school students from 33 schools around the state came out Saturday to march and drill and impress judges with their synchronicity.
The students were taking part in the 39th annual Lisa A. Pauchey JROTC Drill Meet, in which members of each school's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps battalions competed against each other in events such as armed and unarmed squad and platoon formations.
When UT began hosting the meets, the Vietnam War just had ended, the nation was fed up with war and the military budget was slashed.
Yet young men and women still found it worth their time to train and drill and absorb the discipline from a program designed to instill "the value of citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility, and a sense of accomplishment."
Now in its 39th year, the program, since named for Pauchey, a UT Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet killed in an automobile accident just before graduation in 1982, still attracts young men and women at a time when an unpopular war is winding down and the military budget has been cut, with even greater reductions looming on the horizon.
Among other measures, the Pentagon has announced cuts in the number of troops and a plan to limit pay increases to 1 percent.
None of that bothers Kenneth Tielemans, 16, a junior at Bloomingdale High School, who wants to join the Marine Corps.
"I am not worried about the pay," said Tielemans, moments before his battalion took the field. "I am not going into this for the money."
Tielemans said, as of now, his plan is to attend the Citadel, then seek a commission as a Marine officer, which would put him on a familiar path.
For him, joining the Marines is a family tradition. His father, Scott, just retired from the Corps as a lieutenant colonel who flew on F-18s and now works as an intelligence analyst at U.S. Central Command.
"You have to have a Plan B and a Plan C," said the elder Tielemans. "These are hard times and the Marines might not have the numbers to bring in new people. Or bring in very limited numbers of people."
Alexander Dolmseth, 14, a freshman at Bloomingdale High School, said he wants to join the Air Force. Just like his father, Cole Dolmseth, a former sergeant who worked on aircraft fuel systems from 1985 to 1991.
"It's all cyclical," said Cole Dolmseth of the pending budget cuts and how they might affect his son. "You never know what will happen 10 years from now. We could be on the other end of the spectrum by then."
Army Lt. Col. Kevin Kelly, a UT professor of military science who runs the school's ROTC program, said that despite cuts and budget uncertainties, the JRTOC program is as robust as ever.
"We are seeing an increase in participation," said Kelly, while trying to keep the day's events moving along. "The programs are all doing well."
Rick Coles, who is in charge of the JROTC program at South County Career Center in Hillsborough County, isn't fretting about the budget battles. A retired Army major, Coles said only about 10 percent of those participating in JROTC go on to a career in the military.
The real mission of the corps, he said, "is to mold better citizens" regardless of a future in uniform.
"The number one priority for my students is to get them to graduation and go to college," said Coles.