We Are Lawrence

Spit & Polish: Lawrence's Junior ROTC drill team best in state

RYAN HUTTON/ Staff photo Lawrence High School JROTC members Michael Hernandez, left, and Yoshi Laverde, right, demonstrate rifle spinning in the school gym.

Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2014 12:17 am
By Paul Tennant ptennant@eagletribune.com

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LAWRENCE — When 15 high school drill teams from throughout Massachusetts competed at Brockton High School recently, it was the Lawrence High School Junior ROTC Lancer Brigade that took home the prestigious Governor's Cup.

Every morning and afternoon, from the start of school in August until the competition took place Nov. 22, the 77 cadets on the Lancer drill team practiced their skills in the Lawrence High gymnasium, according to retired Army Maj. Kathleen Romano, who has directed Lawrence High's Junior ROTC for the past seven years. The young men and women came together as one big family, Romano said.

The Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps at Lawrence High has 520 members – about an eighth of the school's total enrollment. Many of the cadets interviewed spoke of the Corps as a family.

"We are the largest family in Lawrence," said Romano, whose top leadership team includes three retired Army non-commissioned officers: Command Sgt. Maj. John Helbert, Sgt. Maj. Paul Ronan and Sgt. 1st Class Robert Kujawa.

Jeremy Lasso, a sophomore who is in his second year as a Junior ROTC cadet, earns A's and B's and presents a spit-and-polish image in his uniform. He plans to enlist in the Army after graduation, he said.

It wasn't always like that, he admitted. Before joining Junior ROTC, he said, he was often in trouble. He got into fights and made "terrible decisions," he said.

Then a friend, Jonathan Serrano, now a senior, persuaded him to join Junior ROTC. Lasso said he didn't like it at first, but it grew on him. Serrano and Lasso, both students in the Humanities and Leadership Development High School at LHS, have made a pact: That each will not make the other "look bad."

Serrano has convinced a number of his fellow students to join Junior ROTC, Romano said. Lasso said being a member of the Corps is "like being part of a family. ... We look out for each other."

While Junior ROTC members wear uniforms and follow military discipline, not all of them are necessarily headed for the armed forces. In fact, Romano said she and her fellow instructors encourage the cadets to aim for four-year colleges.

Cadet Col. Michaela Robichaud, for example, the highest-ranking member of the Corps, hopes to attend University of Massachusetts Lowell after graduating next spring. She intends to pursue a career in law enforcement, she said.

Robichaud said she is attracted to the discipline of the Corps, which she said "makes you feel good about yourself." A student in the Humanities and Leadership Development High School, she said Junior ROTC is "more than just uniforms."

Like Romano and Lasso, Robichaud said the Corps is like a family.

Cadet Command Sgt. Maj. Miguel Pena, the second-ranking cadet, said Junior ROTC has taught him leadership skills. Pena, a senior who aspires to serve as a police officer, has already put those skills to work.

He's the captain of the Corps' physical training team, which works out every afternoon from 3:30 to 5. Pena presents a stern, commanding presence and Romano joked, "Everybody's afraid of him!"

Pena is enrolled in the Humanities and Leadership Development High School.

Cadet Sgt. Maricarmen Mendoza is a 16-year-old sophomore – but she sounds like a woman two or three times her age when she talks about her reasons for being attracted to JROTC.

"I like the values that JROTC teaches," she said. Those values include respect, leadership, duty and integrity, she explained.

Many of today's young people, she said, have not acquired those qualities. While many cadets are considering joining the Army, Mendoza said she's headed for the Air Force and hopes to become an aerospace engineer.

At least two cadets have their sights set on West Point. Michaela Gimas and Fidel Ariza, juniors in the Mathematics, Science and Technology High School, said they want to be officers.

Gimas said she likes the idea of a government-financed education – "so I can give back to my country." She said she has benefited from the leadership training and discipline of the Corps.

As a cadet sergeant first class, she makes recommendations on awards and ranks and also maintains the personal files of her fellow cadets.

Ariza said he likes the challenge of getting accepted into a school as selective as the United States Military Academy at West Point.

"I've always been interested in the military background," he said. His grandfather, he said, served in the Dominican Army.

Gimas' grandfather fought in World War II.

"It's a program that develops leaders," Brian Bates, assistant principal of the Humanities and Leadership Development High School, said. Junior ROTC, he said, has "transformed" many students into leaders, including some who barely spoke and others who were chronic troublemakers.

"It is a bright spot in our school," Bates said.