• Tylor Whitehat, the cadet Command Sgt. Maj. of the Coconino Junior Senior High School Army JROTC unit, follows silent commands as he negotiates a simulated mine field at the 2013 JROTC cadet Leadership Challenge at Camp Navajo, Bellemont, Ariz.

    Tylor Whitehat, the cadet Command Sgt. Maj. of...

    Tylor Whitehat, the cadet Command Sgt. Maj. of the Coconino Junior Senior High School Army JROTC unit, follows silent commands as he negotiates a simulated mine field at the 2013 JROTC cadet Leadership Challenge at Camp Navajo, Bellemont, Ariz.

  • Army JROTC cadet Justin McElfresh helps a team member negotiate an obstacle at the 2013 JCLC at Camp Navajo, Bellemont, Ariz. McElfresh is a cadet from Gallup (N.M.) High School.

    Army JROTC cadet Justin McElfresh helps a team...

    Army JROTC cadet Justin McElfresh helps a team member negotiate an obstacle at the 2013 JCLC at Camp Navajo, Bellemont, Ariz. McElfresh is a cadet from Gallup (N.M.) High School.

JROTC cadets used hand signals to guide cadet Tylor Whitehat as he stepped cautiously into squares designated with engineer tape that covered a grassy patch of land serving as a simulated mine field.

Whitehat maneuvered to a grassy block he thought was clear of landmines. Guessing which square was unarmed was tricky: step into the safe square, and cadets moved on; choose the "armed" square and points were deducted, with lost points filling in for lost lives.

"BOOM!," yelled Chief Warrant Officer 2 Linda Woody in an attention-getting command voice to simulate the explosion. "You're out."

Another JROTC cadet quickly took Whitehat's place as he joined his platoon, standing off to the side.

The simulated land mine field was just one of the stations that JROTC cadets negotiated at the JROTC Leadership Challenge (JCLC) 2013 at Camp Navajo, Ariz., this Spring.

Each year, selected JROTC cadets attend leadership challenges throughout the country. They follow a military schedule of early wake-ups, breakfast, formations, platoon teambuilding exercises, clean-up, more teambuilding exercises, more clean-up, personal time, and, finally, lights out.

Essentially, they're going through a weeklong mini-basic training designed to instill the Army values sought in all good soldiers: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.

While the cadets at Camp Navajo follow the same schedule, there's a twist in the population makeup: many of the cadets are Native Americans drawn from Army JROTC programs at high schools either on or near Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico.

Woody, the assistant senior Army instructor at Gallup (N.M.) High School, is Navajo, as are about 30 percent of the 80 JROTC cadets at Gallup. A 30-year Army veteran, Woody spent about four years of active enlisted time before joining an Army Reserve unit as a retention NCO. She's been a warrant for about seven years. She grew up on a reservation in the Navajo Nation and described basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., as a "definite culture shock."

Woody said that being Navajo works to her advantage in the JROTC classroom. She speaks Navajo, and acts as a translator when cadets ask her what a parent or grandparent has said.

She also incorporates cultural teachings, "to show the Navajo cadets how our culture corresponds to the military and how the expectations are so similar in some ways."

Woody believes that joining JROTC brings out talents in students, Navajo or otherwise, that they never knew they had. "They realize that they have strengths; they surprise themselves -- it's a 'wow, I can do this' moment. Some change their minds as to what they want to do after they graduate from school."

She recalled a couple of former cadets who have enlisted in the Army. "One was just a kind of person who played around a lot and challenged the JROTC instructors -- we never thought he'd think about the military. Well, he did four tours in Iraq and received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. He loved the military and this is what he wanted to do. The other one was in the Rangers for awhile -- he received a Silver Star. "

She thinks that similar stories can be found in JROTC programs nationwide. "There are kids who find themselves even though they don't have families. They learn that they can get through things that have happened in their lives that you think a child should never have to go through.

"They'll approach you about it. There's a lot of heartbreaking stories, but the cadets know that they have solid people who can understand some of the things they are going through."

She's been at Gallup High School since the JROTC program was created 13 years ago. While many of the cadets have enlisted, she can recall only two former cadets who received commissions. One is a West Pointer and the other is Woody's daughter, who is a captain in the Army.

Also, many Navajo cadets join JROTC as a way of achieving their goal to become a Marine, Woody said.

"There's still a great deal of respect and awe for the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, " she said. "Since Gallup High School offers Army JROTC and there aren't any Marine JROTC programs in the area, Marine recruiters encourage students to join JROTC to become familiar with the military."

Whitehat, who is one-half Navajo, plans to do just that -- get a commission as a Marine infantry officer. He's a senior at Coconino High School in Flagstaff, Ariz., which serves a portion of the Navajo Nation: 23 percent of its students are Navajo.

Whitehat grew up around the military, with a father serving four years as a Marine ("I idolized my father") and a grandfather who served in the Army. "Military service is a tradition in my family. They're kind of tickled that I'm in Army JROTC and have plans to serve as a Marine officer."

He chose JROTC for the discipline it would instill. "I feel I belong and it's something I'm dedicated to. I'm already taking some college-level courses from Arizona State University and I'll be in Marine JROTC."

Cadet Joseph Whittington, who is Hopi, plans to take a different path and enlist in the Army. He attends Hopi Junior/Senior High School, located in Keams Canyon, Ariz. The school is operated in cooperation with the Bureau of Indian Education and is the first high school on the Hopi reservation.

Whittington has been JROTC for four years. He became interested in it when his sister participated in JROTC, also for four years. He joined for the discipline and responsibility it instills.

Like Whitehat, Whittington grew up in a family with military service. "I've been interested in the military since I was 10. I grew up around it. His grandfather was in the Army, and an uncle and cousin were both in the Marines; the cousin served 20 years, with tours in Desert Storm, Iran and Iraq.

Whittington thinks that cadets with plans to serve will be "one step ahead" of those who don't have JROTC. "We'll already know and understand the basics of the Army, like drill and ceremony, physical training. We'll know what to expect."

Page last updated Thu July 11th, 2013 at 00:00