REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--The high school that serves Redstone Arsenal has the fastest-growing JROTC program in Huntsville.

Columbia High's fifth annual Army JROTC awards program March 16 recognized individual cadets with national and local honors. Garrison commander Col. John Hamilton was among the presenters.

"I'm also the product of a JROTC program," Hamilton said. "It's one of the reasons I'm in the Army."

He told the cadets that Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps is "a great opportunity for exposure to leadership."

And he gave them some advice as they go through the program. "Pay attention, pursue every opportunity you get and it will pay huge dividends to your life, your family and your community," Hamilton said.

Columbia's JROTC, which also includes students from New Century Technology High, has 189 cadets. This is up from last year's 167.

"We are still the fastest-growing program in the city of Huntsville," retired Lt. Col. Eugene Thurman, Columbia's senior Army instructor, said. "And the program's still growing. We're at the point now where we're actually turning kids down in the program. And that's because we have only two Army instructors, and we require three at this point."

The Eagle Battalion had "a banner year this year," according to Thurman.

Its Raider physical training team won a couple of team events; and the JROTC program has created an air rifle team. Its color guard participates in 4-5 events weekly, according to Thurman.

"Within the community we've become almost a household name when it comes to volunteer support of various activities," he said.

Many of these activities involve Redstone, where a number of Columbia's students reside. "We are really a great supporter of Redstone Arsenal," Thurman said.

Columbia has 716 students and New Century Technology has 300. The Eagle Battalion, designated by Army JROTC as an honor unit with distinction, draws students from both schools. The cadet commander is Lt. Col. Sarah Folse, a senior at New Century.

Of Columbia's 716 students, probably 200 are directly connected to the military, according to school secretary Sharon Wieter. "And then Redstone-affiliated it's probably closer to 500," she added.

Columbia principal Dr. Jennifer Garrett welcomed the awards program attendees who included the cadets, their instructors, parents and the presenters. Besides Hamilton, some of the presenters represented the Command and General Staff School, the NCO Academy and other Redstone-connected activities.

"Your support of our students and the Eagle Battalion is greatly appreciated," Garrett said.

Cadet Capt. Angelique Ortiz, a Columbia senior, is in her fourth year of JROTC. She plans to join the Air Force after she graduates in May.

"I love ROTC," said Ortiz, who received a certificate of recognition for outstanding achievement from the Air Force Recruiting Service. "I think ROTC is a good program for all students because it teaches leadership and it teaches respect."