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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Haircuts high and tight. Shoes polished to a metallic sheen. Pant creases stiff as a board.

Yokota High School’s 140 Army JROTC cadets had to be perfect.

They almost were.

In Tuesday’s annual formal inspection, the battalion scored 990.6 points out of 1,000 to earn the privilege of wearing gold stars on their starched green uniforms.

“The gold star is the highest — it’s what every JROTC unit strives for,” said Col. Paul J. Celotto, operations officer for U.S. Army Japan and regional Army JROTC commander.

Seven USARJ inspectors from Camp Zama eyed cadets up and down for anything slightly askew, such as a fingerprint smudge on a shoe or a crooked ribbon. Each cadet had to answer three questions out of a possible 25.

A wrong response meant push-ups and more studying later.

“We were shaking” with nerves, said Cadet Pvt. Andrew Schultz.

The cadets stood in a parking lot for an hour while their appearance was scrutinized. Later, they marched in formation in front of parents and school officials. Inspectors also checked, among other items, the battalion’s supply room for fire hazards and space efficiency.

“We’re pretty surprised,” said Cadet 1st Lt. Jason Sánchez, referring to the end result. “The colonel was yelling at us all year. We didn’t think we had our act together.”

Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Mateer is the battalion’s senior instructor.

Days before the inspection, cadets scrambled to get uniforms dry-cleaned and hair buzzed short.

“They had extra barbers,” Sánchez said of the base’s barbershops.

Cadets feared the worst of Celotto, who’s new to the Kanto Plain: Would he be tougher than past inspectors?

Celotto said cadets must rise to the occasion, but the inspection’s standards aren’t unforgiving. Most important, he said, is that they’re organized, prepared and can demonstrate an ability to lead.

“This program isn’t designed to recruit,” Celotto said. “It’s designed to make kids better citizens.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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