It’s a cloudy Tuesday morning at Del Campo High School.
Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps students are easy to spot walking between classes. Today they have donned their dress blues for uniform inspection.
At the beginning of first period, they’ll raise the American flag and begin marching in unison around the attractive, tree-lined campus in suburban Sacramento County.
Standing at attention in four rows outside the JROTC classroom at the back of the school, Cadet Chief Master Sgt. Justin Dixon inspects the navy blue uniforms of each student. He makes sure they are clean and that each patch and gold metal emblem is in just the right place.
As a student and peer, Dixon doesn’t exactly bark out orders to cadets like the Sgt. Carter character in the “Gomer Pyle” TV series in the 1960s. He is remarkably soft-spoken as military officers go.
After the uniform inspection, Dixon and his fellow cadets march together in formation around several campus buildings before returning to their classroom for some textbook lessons by Col. Earl Farney and Master Sgt. Noah Dula.
Throughout the day, close to 100 participants will do the same thing, period after period. They are members of one of the largest and most successful JROTC programs in California.
Farney and Master Sgt. Raymond Crouse, both retired from the U.S. Air Force, founded the program in 1986 and sponsored five other high school programs in the area. Since then, four have closed due to money.
Dressed in full military uniform, Farney still teaches at Del Campo alongside Dula, who also retired from U.S. Air Force.
They are not credentialed teachers, but they hold close to their hearts the program’s mission of building better citizens through academics and athletics.
Lodi Unified School District has discussed launching a similar program, but it has come up against criticism from school board members. It remains to be seen if students will march in uniform on Lodi Unified high school campuses. Budget concerns may postpone such a program, but a curriculum for it has been approved and some district leaders believe it would be a good option for some students.
At Del Campo, students are drawn to the program for different reasons.
“Some people just take the class because they want discipline or their parents want them to be disciplined,” senior Aneta Rogowski said.
At the end of the school year, she was among the 94 cadets enrolled in Del Campo’s program, which takes pride in maintaining “distinguished unit” status. The one-period-per-day curriculum teaches the principles of flight, navigation, rocketry, time management, self-discipline, leadership, management and teamwork.
Teachers, who receive roughly half their salary from the military, adhere to a strict schedule. On top of Tuesday’s regular uniform inspection, Fridays are reserved for physical training, where students are expected to run and do push-ups and sit-ups.
After raising the American flag and marching daily, the students review their leadership books, provided for free by the U.S. Air Force.
The textbook reviews respect for authority, respect of the flag, qualities of a good leader, basic first aid, and pride and self-respect.
“It gives me a good view of what to expect in the military,” Rogowski said. “It’s going to be way more harsh.”
The students are tested on knowing specific ranks in the government, and who holds the position. Annual research papers focus on historical events such as the Civil War or the bombing of Hiroshima.
After school, students can participate in activities such as field trips, orientation flights and community service projects. On the weekends, they compete in honor and color guard competitions — something Dula said keeps potentially undisciplined students off the street.
They also take regular recruiting trips to local sites, where about 90 percent want more information about JROTC.
Although JROTC is a military-paralleled program, it does not have any military obligations, according to teachers.
Still, it can benefit a student if he or she chooses to enlist after high school. Cadets who complete three years of high school JROTC and enlist in the military receive a higher ranking status, and make approximately $300 more per month than regular enlistees.
Farney insists there is no pressure to join, although 65 to 75 percent of the school’s students do.
He is somewhat of a gruff, shoot-from-the-hip, no-nonsense guy, eager to tell others about the success of JROTC.
While Rogowski enjoyed the class and took it for two years because most of her family is military, sophomore Audrey Rojas is not planning to join the service and is unsure whether she’ll take JROTC her junior and senior years.
“(Military service) doesn’t seem like something for me,” she said. “I’m not into that whole people telling me what to do.”
However, she believes her JROTC experience will help her in a future career as a police detective.
And although she admits feeling singled out on days she must wear her uniform, she said she’s learned a lot about how to be prepared for job interviews.
While some may see the program as regimented or something that can whip specific students into shape physically or mentally, Farney said that’s far from the truth.
“We can’t even make them do push-ups or cuss at them — but football coaches can,” he said.
In the past, Del Campo’s program has had graduates go to West Point and Annapolis.
Every December, the instructors invite former students to talk about life post-JROTC; some have joined the military, while others have used their skills in their jobs.
For the former, they serve as a reality check for students who want to go a military service academy, Dula said. He has been teaching for 18 months after retiring from 20 years of active duty.
Both Rogowski and junior Anthony Jacobsen plan to enlist as soon as they graduate, partly because the military will pay for college. Because of his four years of JROTC, Jacobsen will join the U.S. Army as an E3.
Because no one in his family has a military background, Jacobsen wanted to do something different. In 20 years, after retirement from communications or forensics in the Army, he plans to start a second, yet-to-be determined career.
When asked why he wanted to join, Jacobsen said it’s an honor to serve his country.
“It wouldn’t be free if it wasn’t for people like me,” he said.
News-Sentinel staff writer Ross Farrow contributed to this report.