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franklin county times

PROGRESS 2024: Meeting a higher standard – Russellville High School JROTC

At the college level, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps is a program that specifically prepares young adults to become officers in the United States military. In exchange for a paid college education and a guaranteed post-college career, cadets commit to serve in the military after graduation. At the high school level, however, the Junior ROTC’s aim is focused on motivating young people to be better citizens. JROTC ahelps to develop a cadet’s citizenship, character, leadership traits and responsibility. At Russellville High School, the JROTC is a popular program seeing yearly growth.

Instructors are retired Sgt. 1st Class Randy Ozbirn and retired Sgt. Maj. William O’Keefe are in their second and first years, respectively, of leading the RHS program. They follow retired Lt. Col. Norman Lier and retired 1st Sgt. Michael Conner.

“JROTC is not a training ground for the Army,” O’Keefe emphasized. “It’s a training ground for us, who have military experience, to give life experience to these young kids in high school … The program is not designed at all to make any student think they’re going to be forced to join the Army.”

O’Keefe, who retired from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2016, said he decided to retire to Alabama after a couple of stints at Fort Rucker – located in Dale County and renamed Fort Novosel this past year – during his military career. He said he was drawn to the RHS JROTC program based on prior experience teaching, both at the high school level and in the military, where he taught deployment readiness.

At RHS the JROTC program has four levels. “I teach the first and second levels, and Randy teaches a little of the first and second but all of the third and all of the fourth,” O’Keefe explained. Each level constitutes one semester, so O’Keefe teaches primarily freshmen and sophomores, while Ozbirn has mostly juniors and seniors.

“Never once do we say, ‘Hey, if you come into this course, you have to join a branch of the service,’” Ozbirn explained.

That being the case, it’s a very small number of students who use the JROTC as a launching point to a military term of service – but some do. One current student considering the military is sophomore Cadet Capt. Brycen Chapman. “I’m thinking about going into the military partly for the college funds,” Chapman explained. “Mostly for the benefits and to go to college so I can get a better degree in cybersecurity and cyber warfare. I have a lot of fascination with computers and how they code and things like that, and being able to go to the military to do something that I like would be pretty fun.”

Another is freshman Cadet 1st Lt. Amel Caceres, who said she enjoys the physical activity and cooperative aspects of JROTC. “I’m thinking about going into the Army or Air Force,” she said. “I want to be a doctor, and it will help me pay for school.”

That common theme of funding a college education might be the strongest pull for JROTC students planning on military service.

“We have recruiters come in here and speak mostly about the benefits of different branches of the military,” Ozbirn noted, “because a lot of these kids want to go to college but they don’t know how they are going to finance that.”

Ozbirn, who retired in February 2022 after serving 37 years in the Alabama Army National Guard – the last 21 years on active duty – knows firsthand the benefits of letting the military fund one’s education. He earned an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, all funded completely by the military. O’Keefe, too, has a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Business Administration as well a master’s degree in educational leadership – all funded by the military.

The Russellville High School JROTC program boasted about 185 students across ninth through 12th grades when the school year began in August 2023.

Each level of JROTC has a slightly different focus: Year one’s central tenant is citizenship; year two focuses on leadership theory and application; year three emphasizes involvement, national service, critical thinking, conflict resolution and communication skills; and year four continues to build those skills for learning potential and future success as student prepares to graduate from high school.

As with any high school subject, students spend plenty of time in the classroom. However, JROTC also offers extensive opportunities for hands-on learning. JROTC cadets participate in extracurricular activities such as posting the colors at home football games, the Every Light a Prayer for Peace ceremony, and on-campus activities such as rifle, archery and drone operations. Students wear military uniforms each Thursday, and each cadet is awarded a rank and follows a student chain of command, much like the military chain of command. The highest-ranking students are Cadet Lt. Col. Jurnee Woods, who is battalion commander, and Cadet Command Sgt. Maj. Billy Sandoval.

For Ozbirn and O’Keefe, they welcome the opportunity to share their experiences and wisdom with the next generation.

“I think the thing you learn the most in the military is that everybody is an individual – no two people think the same way – and you have to learn to be a team player,” O’Keefe said. In the Russellville High School JROTC program, that translates to expectations like working well together in the classroom and avoiding negative behaviors. “We expect them to hold themselves and each other to a higher standard.”

Ozbirn said they will often pair students together for projects, cadets who don’t usually work together. This will provide the opportunity for students to learn to cooperate with another person – maybe another person who thinks or operates differently. “It expands on the knowledge, having to associate with someone they’re not familiar with.”

Students also do several presentations during the semester, which builds confidence and public speaking skills.

For Ozbirn and O’Keefe, helping these students grow and develop isn’t just a job. It’s a calling.

“I feel that God has put me in this position – that this is where He wants me,” O’Keefe said. “I didn’t have to come back to work, but when I saw the opening for a JROTC instructor I (knew) it would give me the chance to mentor kids.”

Ozbirn agreed. “If you can teach students enough life lessons, discipline, and respect, and keep one student from taking the wrong path in life, I feel like you’ve been very successful.”

They both praised how well the program is supported by the principal and other school administrators – even other teachers. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had a position with more support than I’ve had here at Russellville High School,” Ozbirn said.

They both said they hope to see the program continue to grow. “We’d like to be five instructors deep and be able to execute multiple tasks,” O’Keefe said. They would eventually like to see a pre-JROTC course offered at Russellville Middle School.

In June, the Russellville High School JROTC program will be sending select cadets to participate in the JROTC Cadet Leadership Challenge, where they will spend four days competing in different events.

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