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JROTC students in Hampton Roads have unique access to military

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: November 27, 2019

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Navy has a saying about its ships that “presence matters.”

The same is true for local high school students when it comes to gaining access to military bases and personnel.

One of the benefits of going to school in Hampton Roads for those enrolled in a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program is that the region is home to all five branches of the military. Students have a homefield advantage to peak behind military gates that doesn’t require expensive airfare, long bus rides or hotels that can strain a typical school’s budget.

Local students have run an obstacle course at Joint Base Little Creek-Fort Story used by special warfare, seen F/A-18 Super Hornets up close at Naval Air Station Oceana and talked with a variety of military personnel.

Virginia Beach Public Schools says a “cornerstone” of the Naval JROTC program is the opportunity to visit military installations. At Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, a magnet specialty program exists for its NJROTC students that touts its visits to local bases, the Naval Academy and local college ROTC programs.

Roy Allen, a retired Air Force nursing corps officer who leads Western Branch High School’s Air Force JROTC program, said his students have a variety of opportunities to make their curriculum come to life by getting on base.

“We are a military city," Allen said. “So we have Langley Air Force Base, we have the naval stations and we’ve got Marine bases around, too. ... We have these students for four years so we really try to go to these different areas so they do get different views of services, because we’re not recruiting for the Air Force. That’s not our program. What we are is a citizenship building program.”

Allen recently arranged for dozens of his students to get a tour of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis while it was moored at Naval Station Norfolk next to the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

A team of public affairs officers aboard the ship, wearing purple hats to stand out in case anyone got lost aboard the massive ship, took the group into the hangar bay, onto the flight deck and even to the ship captain’s chair on the bridge. They answered questions about military life, their jobs and some of the ways life in the Navy is different from other services, such as that it is uncommon for most sailors to eat pre-packaged meals known as MREs. No question was off limits.

Some students surprised guides with their technical knowledge about the challenges Navy pilots face landing their aircraft.

And while the Navy is part of the fabric of Hampton Roads, for some students this tour was the first time they had ever been on a Navy base or the ships that define the region’s waterfront.

“It’s been really awesome. I’ve never been on an aircraft carrier before,” said Megan Sook, a high school junior in in the program. “It’s a really great experience to kind of see everything firsthand and to see how things work and function.”

Even students who have family in the Navy got a chance to see something new, or that they saw when they were too young to remember. Landon Kelley, a senior in the program, said his father is in the Navy and was there when the Stennis was commissioned. He said he thinks he might have been aboard as a child.

Seeing the pride the sailors aboard the ship took in the aircraft carrier’s history was among his favorite parts of the tour, which included a visit to a small museum dedicated to its namesake. Kelley said that, while he’s likely going to join the Air Force, being able to get on base and learn from people in any branch shows how everything is connected.

“The small actions that we do now for our community, it builds to a bigger picture of the whole country itself,” he said.

©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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