Jason Suhr, director of Career and Technical Education for Roanoke County Schools, had an unpleasant task at the School Board meeting on December 13.
It was his job to share the news that the Air Force has decided to end its support of the JROTC program at William Byrd High School at the end of the school year “due to continued declining participation” in the program. William Byrd is the only county school to off er the program and off ers it to all high school students in the county. “While the Air Force has expressed concerns about lower-thandesired enrollment numbers in the past, this is the fi rst time the Air Force has notifi ed RCPS that they plan to close the program,” said Suhr. “Over the past several years we have worked to boost enrollment in the JROTC program including providing transportation from the four other county high schools to WBHS and ensuring instructor recruitment eff orts at the other high schools,” Suhr said. “Despite these eff orts our enrollment numbers have continued to decline, and the Air Force has deemed the end of May 2019 the end of the county program.”
Suhr explained that the school system has reached out to the Air Force to ask it to reconsider and/ or grant an extension, which it has declined. Th e school system off ered to pick up the tab for the program itself. School offi cials contacted Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and WBHS alumni who have served in the Air Force to intervene. Th ey have explored the possibility of converting the program to a National Defense Cadet Corps program or working with another branch of the armed forces. “We are proud of the history and tradition of the JROTC program and are disappointed that the Air Force has decided to take this step,” Suhr said. He went on the present the enrollment fi gures since the program’s inception in the 2006-07 school year when 67 students were enrolled; the highest enrollment was in 2012 with 96 cadets; this year the number of cadets in the program is 65 (38 Byrd students and 27 from the other county schools).
“Congress mandates that there are to be 100 students or 10 percent of the student body enrolled in any Junior ROTC program,” said Senior MSgt. Allen Culbreth, the Senior Aerospace Science instructor for the William Byrd JROTC. “Th e new director is enforcing the rules that Congress set forth.” Th e Air Force makes a financial commitment to the JROTC programs, paying about 50 percent of the instructors’ salaries, in addition to paying for uniforms, computers, books, extracurricular activity equipment like flags and rifles, and anything else that is needed for the course of study. Former William Byrd Principal Dr. Richard Turner says that a parent asked him about starting an Air Force JROTC at Byrd in the early 2000s. With the approval of then-Superintendent Linda Weber and Vinton School Board representative Mike Stovall, Turner formed a study committee made up of teachers, parents, school staff , veterans, retired teachers, an Air Force recruiter, and the Franklin County High School JROTC commander who had children at Byrd. Th e group studied the feasibility of starting a unit, visited other sites, gathered information from AFJROTC Headquarters and debated the benefits of starting a program at Byrd.
The first proposal to start a unit submitted to headquarters was rejected. Th e group tweaked and resubmitted the proposal the next year and were awarded the unit. “It was about three years from the initial idea to the formation of the unit,” said Turner. “Th ere were many people who spent many hours working on this to get it started and it has made a positive impact on hundreds of students during this time.” Senior MSgt. Paul Richardson, the program’s fi rst NCO, says that Rev. David Walton was the fi rst to approach the school about instituting the program due to interest from his son and others interested in the military. Th e program opened in August 2006 with Richardson as the instructor as the school system searched for a senior offi cer to lead the program. He was assisted by MSgt. Dave Spangler and MSgt. Ron Hutton until Maj. Jeff Pruitt was hired. Unfortunately, Pruitt passed away after a battle with cancer and there was a turnover in command with three senior offi – cers in three years, impacting continuity. In 2009-10 William Byrd was remodeled to specifi cally house the JROTC program. At the School Board meeting parent Britaney Minter spoke emotionally about the impact the program has had on her son. She noted that JROTC students who are enrolled in the program for three years are able to enlist in the military after high school graduation with a higher rank. She requested that the program at least stay open for current cadets to “finish out their high school JROTC career.” According to Culbreth, of the 65 cadets currently in the program, 15 are seniors with three-plus years and 13 are second year cadets who are eligible for a third year. Minter said her son became a different person after enrolling in the JROTC program— learning respect, accountability, involvement in school activities— and his grades have improved. She has begun a petition to keep the JROTC program at WBHS afloat at www. change.org and it has gathered 1,700 signatures to date. Community Relations Specialist Chuck Lionberger says the county “is working to get as much assistance as we can get to keep a JROTC program going and are reaching out to every group we can to help us.” Lionberger says the Air Force has a waiting list of around 250 units wanting to start up. Currently they are at the maximum number of units set by Congress. One suggestion has been asking Congress to expand the program in the interests of students. Army Specialist Michael Adams ,who served as Cadet Corps Commander at WBHS said, “The JROTC program meant the world to me, and I would hate to see it end. I have so many great memories and experiences from my time in the program.”
He enlisted in October 2015, then re-enlisted in 2018 for another three years, and is currently stationed in Germany. “Th e JROTC program helped me become a better person through the values and discipline it taught me,” Adams said. “I got heavily involved in the Drill team, Raider team, and a lot of the planning committees we had; all of which carry into my everyday life. I continue to carry on these lessons from responsibilities, to physical fi tness, to how to plan an event from start to finish. It taught me how to become a leader; it encouraged me to become a better student and a better person.” Current freshmen cadet Hunter Burns said, “If the program closes, I am not going to get ranked. Th is program has changed me so much– my grades have been so much better. Th is program has changed my attitude. When you wear your uniform in school you just get a sense of pride. I love JROTC and I hope it never leaves Roanoke County Schools.” Ethan Walton is the son of the Rev. Walton who was influential in getting the program started at WBHS.
“I was in the charter year for the school JROTC program,” said Walton. “My father and other parents at the time, as well as many teachers, worked so hard to get the program started at the school for students like myself and my friends. Before the school had the program there was nothing off ered for students like me. I had no desire to study general studies, or any trades; I was not interested in sports, band, or really any other extracurricular activities. I knew that I wanted to go into the military. “Th e program opened up doors for me that I could never imagine,” he continued. “It off ered a diff erent path for me. It’s just a good program to get involved with, that teaches discipline, respect, hard work, patriotism, and many other great attributes.” He believes the rules need to be changed to be able to keep JROTC in smaller schools. “Th e JROTC program, and William Byrd as a whole have been very interactive in the community, and the veteran community as well,” added Walton. “For the last several years they have put together great events to honor those who have served our country. Th ey do fl ag retirement ceremonies and many other great events across the community. I so hope that we will be able to get the word out to everyone that this program is good for students, good for the school, and good for the community.”