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JROTC: THE UNTOLD STORY

The original version of this article
was published in
Beyond Chron
on October 28, 2008.

Copyright © 2008 Marc Norton


"Without JROTC, I would not be where I am today -- a Staff Sergeant in the United States Army."

So writes Jason, a former JROTC cadet, in his post on the Keep JROTC Alive in San Francisco Facebook site. "As a young teenager," he continues, "the JROTC program helped me develop discipline, leadership skills, and values which I continue to use today. So let's keep the JROTC program alive!"

The Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) was created 90 years ago, at the height of the hysteria of World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson needed troops for the "war to end all wars." The program was reauthorized in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, who needed troops for yet another doomed military adventure, this time in the jungles of Vietnam. Today, under yet another wartime President, George W. Bush, JROTC’s operational budget has more than doubled.

JROTC was, is, and always will be, a military recruitment program.

The "discipline, leadership skills, and values" that Jason and other JROTC advocates tirelessly praise are, for many, nothing more than a come-on for recruitment.





"WHAT ABOUT THE STUDENTS WHO WANT WAR?"

It is October, 2002.

Hundreds of thousands have died in Iraq, mostly children, as a result of the US-backed sanctions campaign against that country. The "shock and awe" of the invasion and occupation is still a few months away, although everybody knows it is coming.

A teacher at Washington High School here in San Francisco watches as a school security guard enters her classroom, radio in hand. The teacher and her students hear a voice come over that radio, ordering the guard to send the teacher to the Principal's office. The security guard relays the order. The guard takes charge of the class, and the teacher heads to the office.

The Principal is waiting for her. He has received a report from one of the school’s JROTC instructors that certain teachers had allegedly encouraged students to go to an upcoming peace march.

The Principal does not tell the teacher that he got her name from the JROTC instructor. He does tell her that he has received a report that she is giving extra credit to students who attend the peace march. The teacher denies this accusation, because it is not true. She does acknowledge that there is a poster about the march in her classroom, and that she has informed her students about it.

The Principal asks, "What about the students who want war?"

At least two other teachers at Washington High are summoned to the Principal's office for a similar chat. One of them eventually learns that they had all been fingered by the JROTC instructor.

On October 26, a crowd of 50,000 demonstrates in San Francisco against the coming war. More than 100,000 demonstrate in Washington, D.C., the largest antiwar demonstration in that city since the Vietnam war. In March, the invasion begins. Hundreds of thousands more die, and are still dying.

Every school day since those three Washington High teachers were summoned to the Principal's office, hundreds of JROTC cadets, many as young as 14 or 15, have been instructed for credit in the art of military discipline and leadership by retired military officers at seven different high schools in San Francisco.

What Principal has asked their JROTC instructors about the hundreds of thousands who have been killed or wounded, Americans and Iraqis alike, in the illegal and immoral war in Iraq?

The Principal at Washington High has since moved on. He is now the Principal at Lowell, the district's premier academic high school, which hosts one of the largest JROTC contingents in the City. The JROTC instructor who fingered those Washington High teachers has also moved on. He is no longer a JROTC instructor, although he does show up at the school occasionally as a substitute teacher.

And, of course, the war goes on and on and on.





"U BETTER FUCKIN WATCH UR PIMPLE ASS BAK."

It is November 2006.

The war in Iraq is now in its fourth year.

"Hey you stupid hatin azz bitch!!! Better watch ur fkn bk ya dumbazz whore!"

That was just one of the threatening MySpace messages directed at Mara Kubrin, a senior at Lowell High School. The day before receiving this threat, Mara had presented a petition to the School Board opposing JROTC, signed by over 800 students.

The next morning her picture appeared in the online edition of the Chronicle, and the flood of threats began.

"God you know how many people you have made cry & how many people hate you! & wanna Beat you up & Slap the Shit out of you!!!!"

A former JROTC cadet, one Daniel Chin, drafted a bulletin with Mara’s picture, calling her a "traitor," identifying her as a student at Lowell, and claiming that "by viewing this... [you agree] to release said author from all damages resulting from... any physical or mental damages resulting from violence" as a result of the bulletin.

"Man those pic bulletins of you are really funny. I mean HAHAH! funny. Like LOL funny. BITCH."

Until Daniel Chin’s role in this episode was revealed, he had been one of the San Francisco JROTC’s spokesmen, supposedly a prime example of the "leadership training" JROTC provides.

"DAMN HOE U BETTER LISTEN UP... I FEEL SORRY 4 UR MOTHER 4 GIVEN BIRTH 2 YA UGLE ASS... U BETTER FUCKIN WATCH UR PIMPLE ASS BAK BEFORE PPL GO JUMPIN UR ASS UP SHIET HA..."

It was later revealed that Chin also sent out a Facebook message which said:

"Jane Kim needs to die."

Jane Kim is a school board member opposed to JROTC. Chin subsequently admitted, in a letter to Beyond Chron, that he had made this death threat. But claimed that he had apologized and "the matter is settled."

Despite articles about this campaign of intimidation and death threats in Beyond Chron and the Bay Area Reporter, not a word of any of this has appeared in the mainstream press, which continues to sing the praises about the “discipline, leadership skills, and values” that JROTC supposedly teaches. 





"WE’RE WATCHING VERY CLOSELY."

It is October 1, 2008.

The war in Iraq is now in its sixth year. It has gone on longer than World War II.

An Associated Press national report quotes a certain Curtis Gilroy, an official in the Defense Department’s office for personnel and military readiness:

"We’re watching the San Francisco situation very closely."


The "situation" that the Pentagon is watching is the vote on Proposition V. Prop V asks the people of San Francisco to declare themselves in favor of keeping JROTC in our schools.

In 2005, nearly 60% of San Francisco voters declared that they wanted to give the boot to military recruiters in our schools.

In 2006, a majority of the San Francisco School Board voted to phase out and replace JROTC, one of the Pentagon’s favorite military recruitment programs.

Now in 2008, the Pentagon and its allies want San Franciscans to reverse course, and declare themselves in favor of JROTC and military recruitment programs in our schools.

One would think this would be a hard sell. But the Pentagon doesn't give up easily. They fear that San Francisco could be the spark that sets off a prairie fire of anti-JROTC campaigns around the country -- a country very weary of the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the Pentagon, as everybody knows, has very deep pockets, and plenty of experience in running disinformation programs.




"VEGGIES OF CONTENTION"

It is October 3, 2008.

The San Francisco Chronicle publishes a Yes on V opinion piece, claiming that "less than 5%" of JROTC cadets "enter the military." The authors cite no source for this preposterous statistic. They add: "The characterization of JROTC as mainly a recruitment tool is completely false."

No less than former Defense Secretary William Cohen said "JROTC is one of the best recruiting devices we could have." Pentagon officials openly brag that 40-50% of JROTC cadets end up in the military.

Yours truly submits a Letter to the Editor the next day, which reads, in part:

"When I asked Jill Wynns, the school board's biggest apologist for the Pentagon, where she got similar ridiculously-low recruitment numbers, she told me they came from the school district. When I asked her for the evidence, she clammed up.

"The San Francisco Business Times used similar numbers in an article not long ago. When I challenged them, they told me, like Wynns, that their numbers came from a school district report, but that they were 'unable to turn up a copy.'

"I filed a public records request with the school district asking for any information they have about the JROTC recruitment rates. Their unequivocal answer is that they have no such data.

"Only the Pentagon knows how many JROTC cadets end up in the military, either immediately after graduation, or a few years down the road. If you believe the Pentagon when they tell you only 5% of San Francisco JROTC cadets end up in the military, I have a bridge to sell you."


The Chronicle, of course, never ran my letter.

They did, however, run a letter a couple of days later titled "Veggies of contention," about a report that the school district is buying fruits and vegetables for school lunches from the Pentagon, alleging hypocrisy on the part of the district for trying to boot out JROTC while feeding the students Pentagon produce.

Of course, vegetables don't get recruited. JROTC cadets do.




"SOMETIMES WE
GET STUDENTS WHO HAVEN’T ASKED TO BE IN THE PROGRAM."


It is July 2008.

The San Francisco "Ballot Simplification Committee" is meeting to discuss and decide how Prop V will be described in the voter’s ballot handbook. Republican operative Chris Bowman is in charge of the presentation for "Yes on V."

The committee is debating whether or not to state in the handbook that JROTC is "voluntary." This goes to the heart of the campaign for Prop V, whose proponents argue that JROTC is a merely a "choice" that shouldn’t be denied 14 and 15-year-old high school freshmen and sophomores.

Representing "No on V," I argue that JROTC is not entirely "voluntary." I cite a survey of 848 JROTC cadets from the previous school year, in which 15.6% of the students stated that they were "placed in the program without my consent." The program was clearly not voluntary for those students.

I also point out that there have been recent reports that immigrant youth at Mission High have been told that they have to take JROTC to graduate.

One of the members of the committee addresses Gerry Paratore, a JROTC instructor at Balboa High. He is asked to comment. He slowly rises. "Sometimes," he says, “we get students who haven’t asked to be in the program."

"What do you do about these students?" asks the committee member.

Paratore stands silent for a quite a while, apparently not sure how to answer this question.

"I talk to them," he finally says.

The committee decides to strike the word "voluntary" from the handbook.




THE GIRL'S DRILL TEAM

It is September 2008.

At Balboa High, the school where JROTC instructor Paratore works, one entering 9th grader was recruited at the beginning of this year into the "girl’s drill team." She didn't learn until later that it was a JROTC class.

When she figured it out, she insisted on getting out. Even with JROTC under a public microscope in the middle of the Prop V campaign, there was some stalling by the administrators, but she finally succeeded. It probably didn't hurt that she is related to one of the members of the School Board.

The district has promised to investigate whether or not other students in the "girl’s drill team" really want to be part of JROTC.




BALBOA HAZING

Go back to 1994.

A controversy erupts when it is reported that three JROTC cadets are sent through "ranks" four times, "a ritual punishment in which JROTC cadets are punched repeatedly on the upper arms and shoulders as they walk between a gauntlet of drill team members," according to a statement by the school board at the time.

In this particular instance, one of the cadets was assaulted by the student commander after being sent through ranks, leaving him with a broken eardrum.

The School Board investigation further revealed that "for at least the last five years, ranks was a common means of student-to-student punishment in the JROTC program at Balboa."

Partly as a result of this revelation, a resolution to remove JROTC from the schools was introduced before the school board in 1995. The resolution failed on a 4-3 vote.

Such a resolution isn't considered again for eleven long years.





"THE PROGRAM IS DYING."

It is now September 2008. This is supposed to be the last year for JROTC in San Francisco.

This is also the first school year that JROTC cadets will not be getting physical education (PE) credit.

State law changed the year before, beefing up requirements for PE teachers. JROTC instructors do not even come close to qualifying, and neither does the JROTC curriculum.

When the school district got a letter late last year from the respected public interest law firm, Public Advocates, suggesting that they would sue the district if they continued to give PE credit to JROTC cadets, the district made the only appropriate decision, and withdrew PE credit.

The number of students in JROTC has dropped precipitously, from about 1,050 the year before to 503.

The biggest number of JROTC cadets has always been entering freshmen and sophomores, looking to get out of taking PE classes for the two years that are required by state law.

This year, without PE credit, the number of freshmen JROTC cadets dropped by approximately 80%.

There are three freshmen cadets at Lincoln. There are five freshmen at Mission. There are four at Burton.

There is now a total of 74 freshmen JROTC cadets district-wide, compared to nearly 400 last year. There are about half as many sophomores this year as there were last year.


Critics of JROTC have long contended that most students join JROTC to get out of PE, not to get "leadership training." That contention seems to be borne out by the enrollment figures this year.

Without the inducement of PE credit, "the program is dying," says one teacher who has been close to the program for many years.




FLEET WEEK

It is October 12, 2008.

It’s Fleet Week. The Blue Angels are screaming through the sky in their annual display of America’s military might.

The Lowell JROTC color guard struts its stuff at the Fleet Week opening festivities, displaying for all the world to see that they are part of America’s military machine as well.

A good friend spends the day at the wharf with his lady friend, watching the aerial show. He is from out-of-town, and knows nothing about the ballot battle in San Francisco over JROTC. But he stops by on his way home, and tells me about all the kids he saw, of all ages, some apparently even of elementary school age, wearing camouflage, playing soldier, many of them in organized groups parading around in formation.

It will soon be November 2008.

America, isn’t it time to be all you can be?



 
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