High school ROTC students split on war with Iraq

January 23, 1991|By Mark Bomster PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN | Mark Bomster PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN,Evening Sun Staff

Their fellow high school students alternately deride them as "GI Joes" -- or applaud wildly when their military drill teams take the field.

The ambivalence of their fellow students mirrors the conflicting emotions felt by members of the Junior ROTC in Baltimore as they join a nation struggling to make sense of the Persian Gulf war.

One example: Cadet 2nd Lt. Kevin Hawkins, a 10th-grader at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School and one of 180 members of that school's Army ROTC battalion.

"If somebody doesn't do something about Saddam Hussein, he can basically . . . build up his military -- and who says he won't take over another country?" asks Hawkins.

"On the other hand, I have family over there," adds Hawkins. "That's why I kind of feel like we shouldn't be over there."

His personal connection isn't unique.

The six cadets interviewed this week -- part of a 1,000-student Junior ROTC contingent in the city schools -- can list some 20 family members serving in Desert Storm.

As do many of their fellow citizens, these cadets have mixed feelings about the war.

"I think we should be over there, because we don't want Saddam Hussein to keep trying to take over the smaller countries," said Cadet Staff Sgt. Mona McCleod, a 10th-grader. "But, on the other hand, all of this killing is not called for over oil."

Cadet Maj. Joseph Taylor, a senior at Lake Clifton, sees Iraq as a grave threat to the world.

"It could be possible for him to gain nuclear power," says Taylor, meaning nuclear weapons. "If he gains nuclear power, that could threaten the world."

But Cadet Capt. Donnell Burke, an 11th-grader, sounds an opposing note.

"I don't think we should be over there," says Burke. "I just don't think bloodshed should be over oil. We have enough oil in Alaska. We have enough oil in Texas. Why don't we use the oil that we have here?"

Yet Burke and the other ROTC cadets firmly support the military now that the country has gone to war -- and they are critical of anti-war protesters.

"The people back there who are demonstrating, where were they when the Congress was debating?" asks Cadet Hawkins. "They were all sitting back there in their houses, watching TV."

Cadet Capt. Ronda Poney, an 11th-grader, says she has been jeered while walking in uniform since the start of the war. She has a sharp message for the protesters:

"You all had plenty of time to voice your opinion," she tells them. "But now that Americans are over there, you have to support them."

The students "have expressed a lot of concern about what's going on there," says retired Col. Norman P. Wilderson, senior instructor with the Lake Clifton program.

Many of them have family in Saudi Arabia, he notes, and wanted to do something active to support the troops. As a result, members of the ROTC class will write letters in a group to individual soldiers.

Though the ROTC students may seem more attuned to the military than do their peers, those associated with the program say it is completely separate from military recruiting.

If a student wants to join the military "we will assist them," says retired Col. Franklin W. Collins, senior instructor at Forest Park High School, which has an Army program.

"But basically, we encourage our students to go to college or go ahead out to a skill that's going to make them self-sufficient," he says.

The Junior ROTC program, started in 1984, primarily is intended to teach citizenship and encourage students to stay in school until graduation, said Collins. Students receive an elective credit.

There are currently junior ROTC units in the city, representing the Army, Air Force and Navy. The city splits the costs with the federal government, though a school spokesman could not give figures yesterday.

The program is not without its critics.

Fran Donelan, who works with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-sponsored peace and justice group, says the program is a thinly veiled recruiting exercise.

Students are exposed to military activities, dress in uniform, participate in color-guard ceremonies, she notes.

"The student's identity becomes tied up with the military," says Donelan. "It is a recruiting vehicle and there is is no question about that."

Donelan also says the ROTC program takes money and space that could be better devoted to other academic subjects.

And Donelan also challenges the morality of having a military program in the school.

"They spend one day a year learning about Dr. Martin Luther King and the power of non-violence, and they spend an hour a day learning about military solutions," she says.

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