Houston, Bibb JROTC units won’t retreat, despite budget setbacks

wcrenshaw@macon.comMarch 11, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- Nothing in the Air Force these days seems beyond reach of budget cuts, even the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Earlier this year, Air Force JROTC headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., sent out letters to all school systems with units that stated they could voluntarily disband.

Houston County school Superintendent Robin Hines said he responded to the letter that the JROTC programs in the system are strong, and he had no intention of disbanding any. Bibb County has two high schools with programs, and they also declined the offer.

However, Wilkinson County Superintendent Aaron Geter didn’t rule it out, saying it’s something the school is looking at as it formulates next year’s budget. Twiggs County High School also has a program, but officials there did not respond to requests for information.

There doesn’t appear to be any possibility of the units being disbanded involuntarily by the Air Force. Col. Chris Wheeler, director of JROTC, explained in an e-mail that units can be disbanded only if the Air Force and the school system agree.

The letter, he said, was meant to inform schools the Air Force will not object if they want to disband programs. Out of 861 units nationwide, including 17 overseas, as of Tuesday five had accepted the offer to disband.

Wheeler said there is no target for a number of closures, and no units will be involuntarily trimmed even if the number accepting the offer remains low.

The annual budget for JROTC is $60 million this year, and Wheeler expects it to be trimmed next year, but he isn’t sure how much.

“Despite budget concerns, the Air Force has no desire to close any program and will continue to support any program that the schools and communities desire to keep open, as long as they maintain standards,” Wheeler wrote in the e-mail.

JROTC programs are costly, but supporters say they are worth it

Establishing and maintaining a JROTC program does not come easily or cheaply. After an extensive application process, the Air Force has to inspect the school before approving a new unit. Uniforms and equipment have to be purchased, but the primary cost is the hiring of two instructors -- one retired Air Force officer and one retired Air Force enlisted person. The schools pay for the instructional materials, and the school system and Air Force split the base pay of the instructors 50/50. The school systems can pay a supplement to the instructors.

Houston County has ROTC in each of its five high schools. The instructors total cost the school system about $350,000 per year.

ROTC is an elective course students take along with their regular studies. At Veterans High School, 126 students are taking ROTC this year, up from 95 last year. They do military-style physical training, though nothing extreme, while also studying leadership and aerospace science. On Mondays they wear uniforms. They also do weapons drills and have an honor guard.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Atkins and retired Chief Master Sgt. Peggy Miller are the instructors at Veterans High. They said the program is good for teaching students discipline and important life skills, whether they enter the military or not.

“A lot of kids come in because their parents want them to, because they know we teach discipline,” said Atkins. “And they usually do pretty well.”

He said about 10 to 15 percent of ROTC students enter the military.

The Air Force came to Veterans High in December to inspect the program, and it ended up scoring in the top five percent of programs in the nation. Miller said it was an especially important achievement since the school is only two years old, and the unit is made up of a conglomeration of students who had previously been in units in the other high schools.

“Really the students helped prepare for that inspection, and they did a phenomenal job,” Miller said. “Being in the top five percent proved they could come together as a team.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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