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Updated: Apr 16, 2023

I took four years of high school Army JROTC. For those of you not yet in high school, tell your parents you want to join when you enter the ninth grade. If you have already graduated from high school, then I’m truly sorry because you're too late. The good news is you can tell your children about it when you get older so they’ll have something exciting to look forward to besides Christmas.

Why take Army JROTC?

Here for you are some of the reasons to participate in JROTC. The better ones are classified:

  • JROTC classes and activities are often instructed by higher-ranking fellow students who are themselves learning leadership and public speaking skills. Many of them are cute in those spiffy uniforms.

  • Twenty push-ups come easier when you have a crush on the person ordering you to do them.

  • You will have many opportunities to teach younger students who wish they were you.

  • You get out of taking high school P.E.

  • You learn life skills by doing rather than listening to lectures.

  • You get to shoot .22 rifles in the indoor shooting range at school.

  • Your adult instructors are officers or senior enlisted men who have often been through actual battles. One of mine was a sergeant major who had been stabbed with an enemy bayonet and left for dead. We did whatever he told us to do.

  • On uniform day, one day each week, cadets wear their uniforms with their ribbons, badges, cords, and insignias all day at school. Fellow students ask, “What are those things on your uniform?” After you answer, they say, “Wow,” and mean it.

  • Once you reach the rank of 2nd lieutenant, the lower-ranking students must stand up and salute you when you’re in uniform.

  • You get to be in color guards, drum and bugle corps, and the elite drill team where you perform complex precision marching formations while throwing rifles between each other. Non-JROTC students gather around looking jealous.

During spring break each year we traveled to the nearest military base (Marine Corps Camp Pendleton) to experience boot camp for three days. Some of my JROTC experiences at Camp Pendleton were:

  • Drill instructors (the real ones) ordered us around for days and could do anything they wanted to us except touch us or swear. Their cleaned-up dirty jokes only sounded funnier.

  • One year, drill instructors woke up my platoon at 2:00 a.m. because somebody had done something wrong. They ordered us to march around the base.

  • In fatigues and boots, we ran map reading courses all over the base’s mountains (no trails).

  • When out on the base’s mountains, we ate government-issued MREs.

  • When not out on the base’s mountains, we ate with the Marine GIs in the mess hall.

  • We carried rifles while crawling through the muddy obstacle course under rolls of barbed wire, with simulated machine gun fire and artillery detonations overhead. Mud ended up in our clothing and underwear. Dirt thrown up from each blast stung our faces. Drill instructors yelled, “Do not stand up or you will be hurt.”

  • We fired M16 machine guns and witnessed live artillery demonstrations striking abandoned tanks and empty buildings.

  • We rode in transport helicopters. I began feeling nauseous, so I looked out the back of the helicopter and saw that the horizon over the Pacific Ocean was vertical.

  • We went through Camp Pendleton’s tear gas chamber. This experience was so extreme it deserves its own section.

Camp Pendleton’s Tear Gas Chamber

Remember movies you’ve seen where bad guys walk out of a building filled with tear gas, coughing into their handkerchiefs as if they had just eaten too many potato chips at once?


The Marine drill instructors (DIs) sat us on bleachers facing the gas chamber building, a small structure eerily located a half mile away from any other. I wonder why that was.

DIs handed each of us a black, rubbery gas mask with glass eyepieces and a web of straps. The DIs described and then demonstrated the steps necessary to put on our masks and purge them, which if performed with surgical precision, allowed us to continue to breathe in a toxic atmosphere. We practiced the steps repeatedly while still out in the fresh, clean southern California air.

The lead DI yelled, “Is there anyone here who has a cold?”

A few hands went up.

“You won’t have one after you walk out of that chamber,” he yelled.

I stood in line with fellow cadets to await final judgment. Wearing my gas mask, I slipped between black curtains with my assigned group into a dark room lit only by a single light located directly over what looked like an ancient Aztec sacrificial altar.

At the center of it all was an open, smoking can over a Bunsen burner. The room was filled with horizontal layers of white smoke disrupted briefly by the movement of its inhabitants.

My heart raced as I tried not to panic under the claustrophobic mask. The DIs had told us that the tear gas, whose active ingredient was something like chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile, attacked any part of our bodies that had moisture. The mask protected my eyes, nose, and mouth, but didn't stop the burning on my neck, in my armpits, and in other places that were gathering moisture.

We stood in a circle around the sacrificial table. All we lacked was the bloody dagger and the chanting. Masked DIs stood in the dark corners of the room.

One of the DIs walked to the center of our group, and with a loud voice muffled by his black mask, said, “Each of you, one at a time when instructed, will lift your mask from your face, breaking the seal. You will stand at attention while holding your breath until you are instructed to replace and purge your mask in the manner instructed to you previously. You will then state your name and your place of birth. When directed, you will walk out of this room in an orderly fashion through the doorway to your right.” Then he shouted, “Is this understood?”

“Yes, sir,” was everyone’s response.

The process began with the first cadet in line. Then the next. About one out of four cadets, upon replacing his or her mask, dropped to the ground writhing and moaning, whereupon the cadet was dragged out of the room by two strong Marines.

When my turn came, I took a deep breath and lifted my mask from my face as directed. I replaced it when told and purged it by covering the mask’s exit ports with my palms and exhaling into the mask good air from my lungs.

After that, I did not inhale.

I answered the required questions and then stood waiting to be dismissed. I held my breath without appearing to do so, which was hard to do when facing a Marine DI six inches in front of you.

My lips and eyes began to burn. They had been exposed to military-grade tear gas, which was not actually a gas, but billions of microscopic particulates that stuck to whatever surface they touched. My eyes and face and lips were covered with it, even under the questionably safe mask.

I stood, still holding my breath until the Marine gave me the signal, whereupon I walked toward the curtain while repressing the urge to run. I managed to walk through the curtains.

The sunlight made my eyes water. My eyes were too watery for me to see. I walked, one step after the other until I decided I could remove my mask. I took more steps with my burning eyes now closed, and still without a breath, hoping that given enough time, whatever had stuck to my face would fall off or blow away.

Then I inhaled.

Hot coals poured into my throat. Crushed glass filled my eyes. I bent over with my hands braced against a boulder. My throat became a thin straw. All that waiting to breathe, and now I couldn't. I heard other cadets crying and thrashing about as their fellow students reassured them. It was minutes before I could see again, and even longer before I could stand up straight and breathe deeply.

This experience I repeated each year.

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