By DIANE R. CHODAN
OBSERVER Staff Writer
Dunkirk High School's JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps) might not be what many people expect a military program to be. Lt Col. Charles Chasler (retired) and Sgt. 1st Class Frank Torain (retired) aren't shouting out orders. Instead, they quietly encourage the students enrolled in the elective course. Official information about JROTC states the mission of the program is "to motivate young people to be better citizens."
OBSERVER Photo by Diane R. Chodan
Lt. Col. Charles Chasler in the JROTC area at Dunkirk High School. Chasler brought the program to Dunkirk High School in 1995. He encourages the cadets to work together to accomplish goals.
Their program is the only JROTC in Chautauqua County.
According to Chasler, "Our program started in September 1995 as part of a nationwide Army JROTC expansion. I had recently retired from the Army and along with my family moved back to the area. I contacted Dunkirk City Schools and other schools in the county and Dunkirk was the only one that showed any interest. Mr. Rich Peterson who was principal of the high school, was very receptive to the idea.
"This initial contact, along with a lot of background work to get the community behind us led to the program being approved for Dunkirk High School. Sgt. 1st class Torain who was a recruiter in the area for about 13 years had also retired and we were both hired by the school district to administer the program."
The program is open to all Dunkirk High School students. They may participate for all four years of high school as long as they successfully complete each academic level.
Chasler is proud of the fact JROTC reflects the same diverse background as the school as a whole. He is also pleased that this group learns to get along and function as a unit. The more experienced students help the newcomers along. Both the instructors and the cadets describe the experience as feeling like a family.
"JROTC is a student led organization that follows the basic structure of an army battalion," Chasler said. "Students start out as cadets and can rise to command and staff positions. Upon graduation, they can compete for a ROTC scholarship to college or enlist in the service and earn an accelerated promotion upon completion of basic training."
Although some students do join the military, it is important to note the program does not request or expect a military commitment. A booklet explaining JROTC says, "JROTC prepares you for life. NOT for the military."
The program is much more than the 42 minute class the students attend each school day. The program has an active drill team and color guard that travels to Erie, Pa. and Buffalo for competition. The color guard has opened several Buffalo Bills' games. They also participated in opening an event with Hilary Clinton.
The group also provides service to the community. Recently, members of the battalion spent a work day at Camp Gross, a camp which serves youth by allowing organized youth groups to camp there and by serving as the site for Dunkirk's summer day camp. A leadership group of about eight stayed overnight and planned the effort. The next day about 25 students cleaned up the site by stacking firewood, bringing up the beds to the lodge, clearing a hill of weeds, clearing out the basement in the main building, and working around several cabins.
"If I had to do it myself, it would be about a month's work," said Tim Cobb, Sr., the ranger at Camp Gross. "This is important to get ready for snow season. They can do so many things because they are young adults. It is helpful and we (Camp Gross Foundation) are very appreciative."
The group usually goes to Camp Gross twice a year, works at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on a food drive, sponsors three blood drives and works with Rural Ministry. They also sponsor a pancake breakfast at Applebee's to finance their travel and other efforts. This school year it will be held on Jan. 28, 2012.
Speaking about the fundraiser, Chasler said, "We generate a lot of business. Veteran groups as well as the community back the effort."
The JROTC rooms at DHS contain a display of trophies the students have won over the years, a bulletin board with pictures of past participants of the programs, photos of the group in action, as well as posters provided to the program. There is an organized uniform room with shoes, pants, jackets and belts, a smaller room with a computer and a large instructional area that can be divided into two spaces.
Chasler said, "We want this to be their area." While sometimes it can get hectic, the cadets are responsible to put the room in order.
Either Chasler or Torain unlocks the door every school day at about 7 a.m. The room remains open after school until about 4:30 p.m. Some of the program's participants come in to talk to their instructors or to sit down to do homework. There is also practice for the drill team and color guard that takes place after school.
Torain, who was a non-commissioned officer in the service, said he was with the infantry in the Army and knows "how to march people around." He also teaches the cadets the proper way to care for and wear a uniform. Uniforms are supplied to the students by the program and are generally worn one day a week to school.
Other components of the curriculum are citizenship in action; leadership theory and application; foundation for success; wellness, fitness and first aid; geography, mapskills and environmental awareness; and citizenship in American history and government. Figures supplied by the JROTC program nationally show participants tend to have better attendance, a higher graduation rate, a lower drop out rate, and higher grades than the population of a school as a whole.
Torain summed up why he has continued in the program for 17 years.
"What it all comes down to is, every day I wake up and get to face challenges of taking care of some administrative, organizational, or leadership responsibility," He said. "That is not boring. It's exciting because I know the end result is I get to make an impact on the lives of teenagers who aspire to be adults. When I hear the number of them calling, 'Sergeant' I know that I am needed. Isn't that what we all want? To be needed? The results of what Lt. Col. Chasler and I do daily is evident when I run into former students and cadets who are living out their futures in a positive way and in those who struggle and ask for advice. I know that not only am I impacting our community but also our country and that's a great feeling."
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