Uniform show of pride

The kids still get teased, but Mariner High’s Junior ROTC program is gaining respect.

By Janice Podsada

Herald Writer

MUKILTEO — The old ROTC put-downs are still bandied about in the halls between classes, along with the tired gestures — the exaggerated salute, the knock-kneed heel-click.

"When I wear my uniform people come up to me and yell ‘Yes, sir,’ " said Gary Gray, 16, a sophomore at Mariner High School.

The two days a week Gary wears his creased black uniform to school he stands out from the kids in baseball caps, T-shirts and boot-cut jeans.

"We still get mocked," said Clint Billen, 16.

But a nation’s return to patriotism has given the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (NJROTC) a credibility boost.

"I was walking home one day in my uniform, and all the cars were honking. It’s like a positive thing, now," said Sonja Hamill, 16, a NJROTC training office.

In 1998, the Mukilteo School District established a NJROTC at Mariner High School after school officials were approached by Navy officials willing to sponsor the program, said district superintendent Gary Toothaker.

Two years later, 92 of the school’s 1,700 students are participants in a program that emphasizes leadership, self-reliance, teamwork and academics.

It has also proved popular with students from schools and school districts where the program isn’t offered.

Gary, who lives in Lynnwood, received special permission to attend the program at Mariner. He was set to attend Meadowdale High School in the Edmonds School District, but when he discovered the school didn’t have a NJROTC program, he requested a transfer to Mariner. He’s one of six students who have transferred to Mariner because it offers the program.

When he graduates, Gary plans to join the Marines.

But not everyone aspires to that same goal.

In a class of 30 NJROTC students not everyone’s hand shot up in the air when asked whether they planned to join the military.

Whitney Kozloski, 15, enrolled in the program when she was a ninth-grader. Her reason for taking the course is very different than Gary’s.

"I needed self-confidence," Whitney said.

Did it help?

"Yeah!" replied a chorus of fellow corps members.

"She was really shy when she first got in here," said Josi Hall, 15, whose hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail. "She didn’t talk at all."

Instructors David McCuistion, a retired Navy warrant officer, and Bill Thiel, a retired chief petty officer, teach the classes.

During a recent, second-year class, the cadets critiqued their performance during an inspection conducted by retired Lt. Col. Ron Eisel with the U.S. Marine Corps. Eisel reviewed the corps in the gymnasium.

"We looked good," McCuistion said opening the discussion.

However, Kristine Greaby, 15, good-naturedly expressed some disappointment with the review.

"I studied really hard and he asked me an easy question," Kristine said.

"You always prepare for the worst and the hardest," McCuistion replied. "That way you’re prepared for anything."

Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Anderson’s said that NJROTC has made a big difference in his life.

"I used to be a follower, and I’d follow the wrong crowd, now I’m more of a leader."

"Ever since I’ve been in the program my step-dad’s said, ‘I’ve become more of a man, ’ " he said.

The comment produced giggles from fellow cadets.

"That’s dad-talk stuff," Jonathan said.

You can call Herald Writer Janice Podsada at 425-339-3029 or send e-mail to podsada@heraldnet.com.

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