By Rachael Tolliver-US Army Cadet CommandMay 22, 2014
With concerns over budgets, finances, and the economy schools are finding ways to do more with less by relying on online classes, ebooks and videos to get away from costly field trips. Sometimes this prevents students from opportunities that take them someplace to learn firsthand, rather than reading or watching a video.
This year JROTC Cadets were offered a unique opportunity that will blend culture, history, self-discovery and a trip outside their school. One JROTC high school program from each U.S. state is invited to participate in the 70th D-Day Anniversary Commemoration in Normandy France this year.
Since so few veterans of that time are left, this will be one of the last opportunities to interact with the men and women who made up "the greatest generation."
But getting there has not been easy and not every program invited accepted the invitation.
Army JROTC, a program designed to teach citizenship and community responsibility, is overseen by U.S. Army Cadet Command. However, funding for participation in events such as D-Day sits squarely on the individual JROTC battalions.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Al Lahood, the senior Army instructor of Francis Lewis High School in New York, said his Cadets did everything from car washes, to selling candy and beef jerky, to holding several socials. But he said the city of New York was equally responsible for their success in getting to France.
"Fundraising was a full time job this year," he explained. "Not only has the community of New York City donated money to (us) but areas outside of New York City did as well. The Queens Courier and the Daily News newspapers spread (our story) around the state and many people that aren't even in (the city area) have donated and helped us raise money."
He added that program alumni and veteran organizations contributed heavily and are among the groups to whom his Cadets will owe a big "thank you."
While Francis Lewis High School is located in a large area like New York, Benson High School is not. It's located near Omaha, Nebraska and Cadets at Benson put just as much effort into their trip to Normandy as did their New York counterparts.
Benson's senior Army JROTC instructor, retired Army Lt. Col Michael DeBolt, said they started their fundraising with a March-a-thon, where students received pledges for each lap walked. To help raise awareness for the program, the mayor of Omaha declared March 29, 2013 "Benson JROTC Day," and Nebraska's governor declared March 28, 2014 the same: (see news link in right hand sidebar)
"After a year of pancake and spaghetti feeds, frozen good sales, donation requests, car washes, and working venue-concessions we were able to raise $91,000 and have had wonderful support from the local community and the whole state," DeBolt said.
The travel schedule calls for all the Cadets to be on hand at the American cemetery in Brittany, France for the opening ceremonies and later at the American cemetery at Omaha Beach during memorial ceremonies. They will also have the chance to view the reenactment of the paratrooper drop that commemorates the liberation of the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise at the end of the festivities.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise played a significant part in the World War II Normandy landings because of its location. It will play host to the D-Day celebrations with various events to include an international parade in which JROTC Cadets will march alongside veterans and soldiers from all over the world.
But without community support, schools like Benson, Francis Lewis and Georgia's Cedar Shoals High School would not be able to participate.
Cedar Shoals, located in Athens, conducted fundraisers, sold apples and discount cards, raffled donated items and started a letter writing campaign asking for donations. But by Christmas they only had enough money to send eight Cadets.
It wasn't until a parent convinced the Athens Banner Herald to run a front page story that they started making headway on their funding, said retired Army Lt. Col. Eric Cleveland, the senior instructor for the program. As a result, between Christmas and April 2014 the program raised almost $100,000 to support the trip. (see news link in right hand sidebar)
"I immediately started getting emails from people asking how they could support the trip," Cleveland said. "We even had a 94-year old WWII veteran raise a significant amount of money for the trip. But he said he didn't want to chaperone because he'd, 'already had an 18 month all-expense paid trip there.'"
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania will also be represented by a JROTC unit at D-Day, even as the city commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The senior Army JROTC instructor for the program, retired Lt. Col. Michael Wertz, said the two towns have a special link.
"Since Gettysburg and Sainte-Mere-Eglise are sister cities, our Cadets will get to meet people from a French town that's similar to their own--a small rural, agricultural cross roads that was turned upside down by the horrors of war," he explained.
While veterans' have supported the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, a large part of the fundraising for the Cadets' trip to D-Day came from some of those same groups. And since many members belong to other organizations in the community, as word spread they received donations from smaller organizations.
For example, the local golf course donated the proceeds from their spring open, a local organization put together a benefit concert with the proceeds going to the Normandy-bound Cadets, and other businesses allowed them to post fund-raising material which lead to several individual donations.
"We've received donations from organizations hundreds of miles away too," Wertz added. "The American Legion and their Auxiliary in Emmitsburg, Maryland have provided great support, even though we're not in their state. The community as a whole has been great."
Further community support for the trip came from volunteers who will act as chaperones for the Cadets while they are traveling.
Gettysburg will take three veterans with them, one of whom is George Fisanich, who served in WWII in the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82d Airborne Division.
"He is a long time supporter of our program and the first person I invited on the trip," Wertz said.
Francis Lewis will be accompanied by a community member they know well--their assistant principal.
Annette Palomino, who doesn't have a child in the JROTC program, said that JROTC is important to students because it provides structure, and they learn leadership and public speaking skills, which she thinks is a necessity.
And she added the trip was an important part of the students' education because of the life lessons they will learn, and the opportunity to be a part of history. However none of this would be possible without parental involvement and community support.
"The community has helped us tremendously and has given us so many donations," she explained. "I also believe in parental support, I definitely think it is necessary for this trip. Without (either), we would not be able to do this."