Camp Miles is about 20 miles south of Arcadia. JROTC cadets from DeSoto, Manatee, Collier and Sarasota counties in June converge on the grounds for annual Summer Camp exercises. When I arrived for recent camp exercises at 6:45 a.m., the sun was just coming up over the pine trees. The cadets are already outside, in formation, and getting ready to raise the American flag. As soon as the ceremony ends, it is off to the mess hall for a hearty breakfast.
The U.S. Army’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or JROTC, is part the National Defense Act of 1916 establishing such programs at public and private schools. In 1964, Congress expanded the program to all military services. The program includes course work on leadership, civics, geography and global awareness, health, and wellness, language arts, life skills, and U.S. history, things not necessarily in regular classrooms. There are something like 315,000 cadets each year in American schools.
Armed with this information, DeSoto High’s JROTC Senior Army Instructor Lt. Col. Ronald Baynes after breakfast picked me up in his golfcart and we were off photographing the day’s events. He explained: “We have 15 cadets from Arcadia attending this year; in the next three days these kids will learn confidence, leadership, team building, and how to follow orders.”
We started with High COPE, an acronym for “Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience.” High means the challenges are physical in nature and take place way up in the air. Our first stop was the 50-foot rappelling tower. I climb the stairs to the top, and photograph the cadets as the two rappelling officers, secured, encouraged, and gave last-minute instructions to these young people before they walked up to the edge, leaned back and rappelled down the tower. Next, I watch these same cadets climb and traverse a 20-foot telephone pole suspended 40 feet in the air. Keep in mind they are tethered to safety officers on the ground, so it looks scarier than it is.
We then enter the area of Low COPE exercises. This is where these kids learn problem-solving, communication and team-building. They had to work together to either figure out how to get the entire platoon over an obstacle, or to get the team through a spiderweb network of ropes, without sounding the alarms.
While talking to Col. Baynes, one success story surfaced. A young man was having a tough time with the physical demands of the camp, he told me. It was extremely hot and he suffered from the heat. Despite the hardship and discomfort, this cadet stuck it out and discovered that he could endure more than he thought he ever could. And now, Baynes added, “He is one of our best cadets; he’s a person we can always count on, and I’m glad he overcame this obstacle. However, this is the story of all the cadets to one degree or another. Each one has to overcome their fears and discomfort in order to succeed. It’s a good life lesson.”
The last night before the cadets go home the whole camp gets together for “Spirit Knight.” A bonfire is lit, cadets gather round and each of the five platoons puts on a skit before the rest of the company. The theme is a humorous reflection on the events of the preceding three days.
All JROTC instructors are retired Army officers and noncommissioned officers, or NCOs. Summer camp is funded by the army, so the cadets have no expenses.
Baynes shared a funny story. “On the way home,” he said, “I heard one of the cadets talking to his buddy, ‘I’m kind of disappointed that this camp is over,’ it makes me feel good that they are looking back on this experience with pride.”
This reminds me of how I felt completing boot camp back in the 1960s. I wish I could share that sense of achievement with every younger person—the ones struggling to find their place—when you dig deep to overcome physical and intellectual challenges. And doing it alongside your friends and comrades. Hooah!