Tucked in the back corner of the LHS campus is a metal building. In the back portion of that structure, ROTC classes for students are taught by Sgt. Maj. Ed Santelices, ROTC Army instructor at LHS, and two others. Santelices said that students participating in ROTC are always challenged to do their best and that leads to higher retention levels, improved academics and the likelihood that they won’t get into trouble.
“We want to teach students about responsibility and self confidence. After that, everything else falls into place,” said Santelices.
A few of the cadets currently enrolled in the program gave their reasons for joining ROTC.
Dalton Matthai, 16, is an ROTC first sergeant. Matthai said he joined ROTC because he wanted to be part of something to be proud of. “This is an organization built on doing the right thing and being the best person and citizen you can be,” said Matthai.
Laura Sauer, 16, is an ROTC staff sergeant at LHS. Sauer had just moved to Leesville her freshmen year and thought the program was a great way to meet new people and get involved in her school’s activities. “I didn’t want to just sit there and do nothing. I thought it was a good opportunity to get involved,” said Sauer.
Nicole Castille, 16, is an ROTC second lieutenant. Castille said she was a bit of a troublemaker before ROTC. “I knew I needed to change and my aunt told me that this program would keep me out of trouble. I don’t get in trouble any more and I’ve become a leader in the classroom and out. If I do decide to go into the Army, I’ll have those skills,” said Castille.
Jessica Burrell, 15, is an ROTC private first class at LHS. She said her dad was in the military and he encouraged Burrell to join. “He said it would be good for me because I would be learning leadership skills” said Burrell.
Lashayla Lipton, 17, is an ROTC lieutenant colonel. She said she used to be really shy before joining ROTC. “I’m a cheerleader and I’m OK in front of a crowd, but when it came to dealing with people one on one, I couldn’t just walk up and talk to them. But ROTC has helped me learn a lot of leadership skills and now I can go up to anyone, introduce myself and get to know them,” said Lipton. It’s a talent that will come in handy since Lipton wants to eventually go into public relations.
The cadets explained that many people, including parents and students, have a false impression about what the ROTC program is about.
Santelices said ROTC is not a military subject. “When we have open house, parents say they want their child to join ROTC, but they don’t want them to go into the military. Then they ask if there is any way to work that out. I have to make it clear that joining ROTC doesn’t mean you automatically go into the military,” said Santelices.
Castille said people don’t understand what ROTC is all about. “I try to explain to people it’s more about learning first aid and how to read a map. The teachers work with you and even help you with other classwork. They also assist you when preparing to go to college and if you are planning on going into the Army,” said Castille.
Matthai said that many of people have the misconception that ROTC is just about getting you ready for a military career. “It’s not like that at all. The class is about motivating young people to be better citizens. It teaches life skills that prepare cadets for the future and will help them succeed in life,” said Matthai.
Cadets learn about a wide variety of topics including career portfolios, college preparedness, financial readiness, life skills, health, first aid and more.
Sauer said it’s a great class because it boosts self-esteem and makes students feel good about themselves. “A lot of it isn’t even about the military. They teach us geography, history, first aid, life skills,” said Sauer.
In the process of learning, cadet members become more than classmates. “What they learn in ROTC, they can’t get out of a book. One of the things they are taught is camaraderie. They become close friends because they spend so much time together. When one of these kids is down, all the others lift them up. They are there for one another. They are a Family. It is really nice to see,” said Santelices.
Burrell said she remembers Santelices mentioning that there were four different things they would learn at the beginning of the year.
“The one that stuck out was that we are going to be a family. Being in ROTC is like being in one big happy family. You may fight sometimes, but at the end of the day we all know we love each other,” said Burrell.
Matthai said he had some people skills before he took this class, but ROTC has allowed him to get even better at public speaking and being in front of people. “It has helped me gain friends and personal respect,” he said.
Setting the tone for this kind of atmosphere are the instructors.
The ROTC instructors at LHS are people you can go to for advice and knowledge about things, said Matthai. “You can confide and trust in them and ask for advice on topics ranging from the classroom to the future,” he said.
Lipton said they motivate cadets to be the absolute best they can be wherever life takes them.
The mission of ROTC is to make young people better citizens, according to Burrell. “These instructors want us to become better citizens and be prepared to enter the world as adults,” said Burrell. “A lot of students think the ROTC teachers aren’t nice. I just want to say that Sergeant major Santelices is my favorite teacher. He made me want to come to school every day.”
Santelices said instructors aren’t the only ones that inspire a transformation. “Students from freshman to seniors are together in one class. So they help, mentor and motivate each other,” he said.
Sauer said ROTC has taught her to be more responsible, to prioritize and take academics seriously. “It’s a cadet-run program, so there are a lot of mentors that can help you get through things. I’ve learned a lot from that,” said Sauer.
Burrell said if you are having trouble in one of your classes, there is usually someone in your company that’s good in that area. “Older student mentors help you. You can bring work you are having problems with to class and get help from other cadets,” said Burrell.
Matthai said ROTC offers other opportunities like the annual ball. “The ball is the one thing everyone looks forward to all year long. You learn things like proper etiquette and how to dress for a formal event. It’s a formal military ball and we have a lot of fun,” said Matthai.
Lipton said cadets want to do more activities because then you get more ribbons for your uniform and that makes it look better. “We get the ribbons for our uniform by volunteering and doing different activities within ROTC. For instance, I got ribbons for repelling and going to ROTC leadership camp. It’s about being involved. You get involved in more activities and it makes you feel better about yourself.
“You can also get ribbons for maintaining a certain grade point average or maintaining perfect attendance,” said Burrell.
As an ROTC cadet, first year students must wear an Army uniform one hour once a week. Second, third and fourth year students are required to wear the uniform one full day each week. According to Matthai, that is another reason many students don’t want to be part of the ROTC program. “Many people don’t want to have to wear the uniform. But you only have to wear it once a week. It’s not that big a deal. It get’s hot, but we have all lived through it and people in the Army do it all the time,” he said.
Burrell said once cadets start gaining rank, they want to display what they’ve earned by wearing the uniform.
ROTC activities include volunteering. Lipton said there are two service projects that cadets are required to do each year, but nobody wants to do just the bare minimum, so they always do more. Activities include sending packages to Soldiers in Afghanistan, visiting the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Alexandria, participating in the local food drive and more. “We are always giving back through ROTC. So you get that gratification that you are helping somebody that can’t do it for themselves,” said Lipton.
Though some of her classmates are planning careers in the civilian realm, Burrell said she thinks she wants to go into the military. “So I’m going to go through ROTC in college and come out an officer. The leadership experiences and skills I learn now will only help me in the future,” she said.
To sum it up Matthai said he feels the ROTC program prepares you for not only today, but also tomorrow. “It’s just a great thing to be a part of,” he said.