By Clay Wilson
On Friday, 44 area youths completed a boot camp. But these graduates won't be going off to serve their country in a foreign land at least, not yet.
"One of the neat things for you all is that you don't have to kiss these goodbye and put them on an airplane they're coming home with you," U.S. Navy Capt. (Ret.) Steve Seal told a group of parents gathered in Luella High School's gym Friday.
The parents were there to witness the graduation of 44 LHS freshmen from Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) "mini boot camp."
"To have this many out there is incredible, I think," said Seal.
But the 44 who participated in the boot camp were just over half of the approximately 85 students Seal expects to enroll in the new high school's NJROTC program.
Commissioned by the U.S. Department of the Navy but administered through Henry County Schools' Vocational/Applied Technology Department, NJROTC uses a military-style model to help instill discipline, character and self-esteem into students.
According to Seal, Luella's unit is one of only 37 NJROTC programs established nationwide by the Navy for the upcoming school year. A 27-year Navy veteran (including four years on the faculty of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.), Seal is nontheless a first-time NJROTC instructor.
But, he said, his "lack of experience" is made up for by his co-instructor, Navy Sr. Chief (Ret.) Larry Elkins. With six years in the U.S. Marine Corps and 16 in the Navy, Elkins has also been an ROTC instructor for more than 10 years. Since 1995, he was an instructor at Eagle's Landing High School.
At Luella, Seal will be titled the "Senior Naval Science Instructor," while Elkins will be the "Naval Science Instructor."
Both men participated in the boot camp, which was voluntary for NJROTC students. Assisting them were more volunteers - sophomore and junior NJROTC cadets from the county's other high schools who are transferring to LHS (the school will not have a senior class this year).
During the week, the students worked on physical training, drill, marksmanship and even how to correctly wear the NJROTC uniform. On Friday, LHS Principal George Eckerle served as honorary reviewer for a "pass and review" conducted by the boot-camp graduates.
Eckerle, who hired Seal and Elkins as the school's NJROTC instructors, said he was impressed by what he had seen of his incoming students at the boot camp.
"I assure you that Luella High School will do outstanding things," he told the parents.
Besides the graduation, Friday's ceremony also included an awards presentation. One of the students who participated was 15-year-old Austin Kleemeier, who received awards for physical fitness, personal appearance, orienteering and drill.
"I thought it was fun," Kleemeier said of the boot camp. "It was hard, but life ain't easy."
Kleemeier said he is looking forward to the school year and participating in the new NJROTC unit.
Also expressing high hopes for the year was U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Giordano, whose son, Brett, graduated from the camp. Giordano said he was struck by how quickly the students had picked up on the elements of drill.
"(In) the time frame they had, they learned a lot," he said. "(In the Army) we rehearse (pass-and-reviews) for four or five days, even though we've done it a lot."
Based on the cadets' performance in boot camp, Seal predicted a good upcoming year for the new unit.
"It will go as well as it possibly could for a first-year unit," he said. "As a matter of fact, it will go like we've been around for three or four years."