LINDEN, NJ — When a sign-up sheet for community service is posted in the The Academy, located right across the street from Linden High School, there isn’t much time before it’s been filled out by hundreds of high school-aged cadets, squad leaders and others who make up the district’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.
There’s almost always a waiting list for the members who want to help others through community service. The ROTC program has too many members, all of them students at Linden High School who opt into ROTC instead of gym, who want to spend their time making Linden a better place however they can, which is what the district envisioned when it ushered in the ROTC in 1986.
“When I was president of the board in 1986, when we started the ROTC, a lot of local public schools were putting in the programs,” said Maryann Dorin, a retired member of the Linden Board of Education. “My first thought was ‘I don’t know,’ it might cause friction with students. I went home — my husband George was in the United States army in World War II, he celebrated his 18th birthday in a P.O.W. camp — and I asked him what he thought. George looked at me and said, ‘Maryann, give them a chance. I think that might be exactly what you need for the school system, putting some confidence and discipline in these kids. They’ll be the ones who service the community.’”
There were only about 100 kids involved in the program in its infancy, when Dorin and the Board of Education approved adding the ROTC to Linden’s curriculum, but that’s a figure which has been bumped up to about 400 students in recent years.
There are a lot of reasons for the increasing popularity of the program, which nearly a quarter of the students at Linden High School are opting into this semester, but among the leading reasons is the lasting impact it’s had on people.
Years after they’ve left the ROTC, former students — parents, or older siblings and friends — encourage their younger relatives to join, says Commander Boyd Decker, one of five instructors with the ROTC.
“A lot of kids, their parents were in the program, their cousins were. Linden is a very tight community with a lot of families who have been in the program for a long time, so I think it’s just gained momentum as a lot of parents, and a lot of kids, want to help ROTC and keep up the legacy,” said Decker. After more than 20 years of service in the U.S. Navy, Decker became the commander with the Linden ROTC last fall. “They find it a safe, fun place to go, where they can go hang out. I’m in a position where I’m still new to it, and I’m awe of it.”’
The students “hang out” early and often: The military-like commands, drill exercises and orderly marches can be heard coming from The Academy as early as 6 a.m., when some of the students show up — voluntarily — to practice with each other, and as late as 6 p.m.
There are plenty of ROTC groups within driving distance of Linden, but the district’s program is the third-largest in the state, and the students take initiative by organizing everything by themselves.
They embrace the added responsibilities, civic and otherwise.
“This wouldn’t be in my comfort zone. I wanted to get out of it,” said freshman Love Desrosie, who joined the ROTC in the fall. “Like when I had to lead — you have to lead a squad — and I’m more of a shy person. This was definitely out of my comfort zone.”
Some of the students say the military undertones made them a little unsure of what ROTC would be like, when they were freshmen like Desrosie.
But only about 10 to 15 percent of ROTC members go on to join the military, said Decker. For the rest of the students, ROTC is about gaining a sense of discipline they might not get in gym.
“I joined mainly because my brother was in it,” said Jeremiah Acosta, who, as the youngest cadet in the program, cut a cake with a sword on Veterans Day, with the most senior veteran in attendance. “It’s helped me become a more serious person. I’m a little more responsible. It definitely helped me focus on my studies, and as long as I’m focused on my studies, I’m good.”
For those who do intend on joining a the military, like junior Kyle Grunder, the ROTC offers benefits to that end, as well: The history and knowledge students learn in ROTC gives them a rank boost if they join a branch of the military, especially the U.S. Navy, where Linden students can immediately join as Seaman — effectively skipping a few months of initial work.
“Because you’re in ROTC, it does give you a benefit. You start out at a higher rank, skip a few months of work,” said Grunder, who intends on joining the coast guard after he graduates high school. “At first, I thought, ‘a bunch of people screaming at me, I don’t want that.’ But I learned the ropes, I thought, ‘this is pretty cool, this is better than gym.’ I don’t get all of this knowledge and these leadership roles in gym.”