PALMETTO -- Within a high school's Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps creed it states: "I am the future of the United States of America," and instills such values as citizenship, leadership, personal and social responsibility, academic achievement, fitness and service to community.
Ask the Palmetto High School JROTC cadets if any of that is true and you will receive a confident reply, "Absolutely."
Palmetto's JROTC program began more than a decade ago under First Sgt. Wayne Hockley, U.S. Army retired, who jump started a successful program from its incep
tion and that success has held strong with the leadership of the programs current chain of command, which includes Hockley and retired Lt. Col. Philip Hugh and Chief Warrant Officer John Edmund, the programs primary instructor.
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Under their administrative leadership, as well as cadet leadership, the program made school history this year by qualifying all three of its teams to the state championship on Aug. 13 at the University of South Florida.
"When First Sgt. Hockley started this program a long time ago, he established a tradition of excellence and through the years, the cadets that have participated in this program have been able to maintain that great tradition," said Davis Fulghum, the cadet battalion commander and senior at Palmetto High. Besides being the overall team captain, Fulghum is captain of the male team and has been offered three major university ROTC scholarships, including the University of South Florida.
And to think it almost never happened.
"I joined my freshman year by accident," said Fulghum. "I was in band, but when they told me I couldn't play the drums I left to join JROTC. It was the best decision of my life. I think this program has been most beneficial to me in instilling confidence in public speaking. When you have to exert that confidence to 350 cadets, it grooms you into the discipline of public speaking and those are the kind of skills you can take into college and everyday life."
The Palmetto male team took second place at district, competing against Manatee, Braden River, Lakewood Ranch, Bayshore, Sarasota and Southeast high schools and Sarasota Military Academy. Palmetto finished a competition that includes multiple physically grueling events behind Sarasota Military Academy to qualify for state.
The mixed team claimed the 2014 district championship by defeating Sarasota Military Academy and the remaining school teams. It is led by junior Luz Olguin, who chose JROTC as an elective her freshman year while still an eighth-grader at Buffalo Creek Middle School.
"I like trying new things and I had never heard of JROTC and decided to give it a try," said Olguin. "I remember coming in as a freshman and listening to the seniors tell all their JROTC stories and wanted to be that person when I was a senior."
The mixed team consists of males and females and Olguin said it can be an interesting challenge for the females.
"The mixed team is five girls and the rest are guys and sometimes the problem is the girls trying to keep up with the guys' standards," she said. "They both have goals, but the struggle to keep up with what the guys can do physically pushes us to do better and we know that because we are one team, we can't let the guys down. We have to work together."
Olguin said she never imagined what she could accomplish until she joined the JROTC program.
"The accomplishments I've made so far only makes me realize how much more I can still do," she said. "I never thought JROTC would end up meaning so much to my life."
Like Fulghum, Olguin said she can't imagine what her life would be like without the JROTC experience.
"I ask myself that all the time," she said. "I don't think I would have ever known what I'm fully capable of doing and knowing now that I can still do so much more."
The male and mixed teams have state championship experience, but for the first time since the program started, the female team has qualified for state with a second place finish behind Sarasota Military Academy making it the first time in school history that all three teams will attend the state finale Aug. 13. The team is led by senior Itzel Avendano, who had her eye on wearing a military uniform since joining as a freshman. She intends to complete college first, but is considering the U.S. Marine Corps.
Itzel said the JROTC program has helped her overcome a basic fear of trying new things and now loves every new challenge that is placed before her.
"The program has already helped me a lot," she said. "It has helped me mature and I accept responsibility better now than when I first joined. I've learned how to work as a team and just get things done. Working together is the main thing and that's the difference in us making state this year. Whenever something goes wrong, you can't act mad about it. If something goes wrong in a competition, you can't act like that. You just have to embrace it, get better and learn from it. We brought a different attitude into the program this year and it's paying off for us."
While this is all taking place under Fulghum's cadet command, he is quick to give credit to his instructors and team captains.
"Taking all three teams to state means a lot to me, but I can't take credit for that," he said. "We come out here and train together, work hard together and reap the benefits together."
The cadets are training hard for next week's competition. They will compete in events such as a 2-mile litter run, where cadets carry 120 pounds on a medical litter, a 40-pound individual sandbag run and other grueling tasks that will make up a combined score to determine this year's JROTC state champion.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.