JROTC: The Beginning of the End

Adrian Kane
December 28, 2006

Walking toward Lowell High School's basketball court on a Monday evening I first glimpsed the JROTC from a distance, as a dark serpentine of students marching behind the Stars and Stripes and Lowell's own red banner. It was the kind of sad, stirring military spectacle that personifies either the best or the worst of human nature. And it was a sight that will soon be history.

On Nov. 14 the San Francisco School Board passed a resolution declaring that because of its connections to the military -- which maintains its Don't Ask Don't Tell policy regarding gays and lesbians -- the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) is discriminatory against the LGBTQ community. All seven JROTC programs in the city will be phased out within two years and replaced with "alternative leadership programs."

Here, in the most liberal city in America, more than 1,500 high school students are active in this institution, long regarded as a feeder program for the United States military. But current members of the program argue that the JROTC's connection to the armed forces now exists in little more than name and funding. These students formed a large and vocal front against the school board's proposal in the weeks leading up to the vote. Leslie Yeung, a junior corporal in the Lowell brigade, was one of the leaders of the movement to save "RO."

"I joined the JROTC freshman year," Yeung began, "because, one, I didn't want to spend $30 on a P.E. uniform when I already had a good P.E. uniform from middle school. Two, I didn't like P.E. And a friend said it was fun, so I joined. It's like a family; the teachers become mentors. I came from a bad neighborhood where everything was chaos, so the discipline and freedom in the JROTC was a great experience."

Yeung was technically still on duty, and we had to shout over the tramp of sneakers and trilling snare drum. She explained, "I might have to sing the God-damned Star Spangled Banner again -- so I'm sorry if I have to stop mid-word."

Leadership, discipline, and "family" come up frequently in discussions with students in JROTC. The JROTCs across the nation do retain some military elements: its teachers are all current or retired U.S. servicemen, companies perform drills and students follow a military hierarchy. However, in most JROTCs students no longer practice with weapons or study military strategy. Nor are recruiters invited to speak to JROTC classes. For the most part, courses emphasize leadership. I asked Yeung if she had plans for a career in the military.

"Oh, hell no!" she exclaimed, eyes flying open with horror. Then she laughed. "I mean -- I shouldn't say 'hell' should I? Let's put it as … God take me if I do."

Yeung considers herself more or less typical of JROTC students in San Francisco. She says that many students come into the JROTC already settled on a career military, but that the instructors themselves try to discourage these students because "they want us to know what we're getting into."

The JROTC and its allies refused to roll over and wait for the school board's verdict. Yeung had started a petition at Lowell a month earlier, and representatives of all JROTC programs in the city had planned a rally for Nov. 14 in front of City Hall.

On the evening of the rally, the chilly champagne bite of autumn hung in the air. Civic Center Plaza was a wasteland of gray cement and stunted trees, washed yellow by the frail fog-bound sun. At the head of a central lawn stood a dais draped in white fabric, and a podium, on which hung a sign reading "Cathay Post No. 384 Chinese American Veterans" in both English and Chinese.

On the dot of 4:30 a half-dozen older gentlemen in jackets and military caps emerged from a van. The veterans of Cathay Post No. 384 mounted the dais in a line and sat down; meanwhile, from all directions, bands of students carrying signs streamed into the plaza, congregating on the central lawn. The signs -- there were dozens -- focused on JROTC's communal element ("JROTC: We are family!").

A young man snaked to the front of the crowd and bellowed "Lowell motivation check!" Immediately all the Lowell students in the crowd snapped to attention; they began a bawled call-and-response familiar to anyone who's watched their share of Army flicks. In the midst of this Leslie Yeung marched over to me and took my arm proprietarily. She introduced me in a rush to Lauren Lee, a senior and a master sergeant at Lincoln High School and vice president of Lincoln's Gay-Straight Alliance. She claimed to have seen no evidence of discrimination in the JROTC.

Then the rally began, 15 minutes late. Clearly the organizers had been hoping for a larger crowd, but after a 150 or so people, the trickle of latecomers dried up. As a consequence the protesters looked a little lost in the huge plaza, and huddled against the stage shoulder-to-shoulder, an illusion of overpowering mass.

The day before the crucial school board vote, I met Eric Blanc, an anti-war activist, who had been circulating anti-JROTC petitions through classes at School of the Arts.

"Despite what people say to the contrary, the ROTC is a military recruitment program," said Blanc, a redheaded young man with a light, earnest voice. "I had a friend at Lowell, where I used to go to school -- he went in to avoid P.E., came out brainwashed by their rhetoric, joined the military because he felt he had to, and when he came back from Iraq, he'd lost half his leg."

According to Eric, nationwide figures show that JROTC students are five times more likely to join the military than regular high school students. (An informal 2005 poll showed that around 40 percent of JROTC students nationwide do go into ROTC programs or directly into the military after high school.) His group proposes to involve community organizations like the Red Cross and Outback, which already have programs in schools, in developing a leadership program similar to the JROTC but without the military element.

San Francisco receives $800,000 a year from the federal government for the JROTC programs, which pays for classrooms, computers, and half the JROTC instructors' salaries. The other half comes from the San Francisco School District, an estimated $572,111 yearly. Under Eric's group's proposed program, community sponsors would make up for the money paid by the federal government, hiring teachers who would not, as former members of the military, carry with them implicit discrimination against the GLBTQ community.

Nelson Lum of the American Legion Cathay Post 384, the first speaker at the rally, was greeted with a mixture of respectful applause and whoops.

"We are here," he said, "because some members of the board of education are discriminatory against anything that might be considered military! … We are proud of our military heritage," he continued.

But, in San Francisco at least, the JROTC itself will exist no longer. The school board meeting on Nov. 14 stretched far into the night, with both pro and anti-JROTC speakers arguing for more than two hours. The vote itself, however, occurred so suddenly it felt like an anticlimax. One moment the last speaker was finishing his speech, and the next, after a chorus of ayes and nays, the issue was decided, four to one, in favor of the bill. In that second all the efforts of Leslie Yeung and her allies collapsed; the board had moved on to another motion, as though the exhausted speakers, the crowd on the plaza, and the thin dark line of JROTC students marching behind the Lowell banner had never existed at all.