Looking sharp in neatly pressed uniforms, members of Panther Valley High School's U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps color guard hoist the American flag as they practice for participation in the Pennsylvania American Legion's annual POW/MIA remembrance ceremony.
The cadets' trip to Harrisburg for the ceremony Friday is among the program's many public appearances as Panther Valley's ambassadors. They also serve at Memorial and Veteran's day services, at military funerals and march in parades. They participate in flag-raising ceremonies and helped dedicate Coaldale's Veterans Memorial Garden.
The Panther Valley corps, among about 1,645 Army JROTC units in schools across the country, aims to teach students leadership skills, discipline, courage, and integrity.
"It helps you become a better person," said Panther Valley sophomore Michael Scotto.
"Our program doesn't teach how to solve a math problem, or read a great literary work," says JROTC Assistant Instructor SFC Joseph A. Jordan. "But it does teach fundamental things you do need in life. The thing we teach here is how to become a better citizen."
The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines each have JROTC programs. There are 28 Army JROTC programs in Pennsylvania schools, including Panther Valley and the Pine Grove Area School District
There are also 21 Air Force JROTC programs, the closest being at Louis E. Dieruff High School, Allentown. The Navy JROTC is taught in six school districts, including Allen High School, Allentown. There are seven Marine Corps JROTC units in the state, the closest being Reading.
At Panther Valley, 73 students, or about 20 percent of the high school enrollment, have joined the district's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.
The Army JROTC program came into being with the passage of the National Defense Act of 1916. The programs, staffed with active-duty Army retirees, are charged with "instilling in students in United States secondary educational institutions the value of citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility, and a sense of accomplishment," according to U.S. Code.
The program has evolved over the decades from being a source of recruits to being a character-building organization. Cadet enrollment stands at about 281,000, with 4,000 professional instructors.
At Panther Valley, Maj. Kenneth Markovich is senior instructor, with SFC Joseph A. Jordan as assistant instructor. Markovich's salary is $60,307.50; Jordan's salary is $46,690.38.
"The district is then reimbursed by the government for exactly one half of their salary," said school district Business Manager Kenneth Marx.
Both Markovich and Jordan are 11-month employees of the school district who work from August to June. Each year their salaries are adjusted in January, he said.
Markovich receives the same benefits as teachers, Marx said. Jordan receives a lesser amount.
The salaries are set by the Army.
According to the U.S. Army JROTC website, the "minimum instructor pay is the difference between official retired pay, and the active duty pay and allowances (excluding hazardous duty and special pays) that a JROTC instructor would receive if ordered to active duty."
Schools employing JROTC instructors must pay the minimum instructor pay, and guarantee a 10, 11 or 12 month contract. The Army reimburses the school one half of the calculated minimum instructor pay. However, according the website, "many schools elect to pay more than the minimum, and are encouraged to adjust instructor pay based upon the individual's qualifications and experience."
In their own words
"It teaches you how to learn," Panther Valley Platoon Sgt. Patrick Iezzoni said of the program.
The high school junior says JROTC has taught him far more than how to properly fold a flag, read a map and stand at attention.
"It teaches you a lot about citizenship, and personality traits that will help you in life – how have a successful job interview – things you can't learn anywhere else in school," he says.
Patrick reflects on serving at military funerals.
"At the beginning, it's tempting to just relax and talk with the person standing next to you. But when you are presenting the flag, and you get a little bit closer and actually see how the people react, it kind of clicks, and you really realize, wow, I'm actually at the funeral of someone who is a veteran. That's when you realize that what you're doing is very important to a lot of people," he says.
Battalion Executive Officer Roxanne Person, a senior, manages the JROTC staff, and makes sure that they get their assignments done. She's also in charge of the fund and organizes fundraising. Roxanne is in her third year of JROTC.
"I've learned that I can do anything I set myself to, and I'm learning how to lead others – I'm still in the process of that," she says. "It helps you become a better person, and it's fun."
Pvt. Michael Scotto, a sophomore and the program's Public Information Officer, says he's grown through the program.
"I joined because I wanted to motivate people, and also because, while I wasn't a terrible student, I always complained. Ever since I joined, I've been changing. I went from being overly dramatic to being a mature student. Every time I wear the JROTC uniform, I feel like I'm encouraging students to join, and I feel dedicated to being in this corps," he says.
Battalion Commander Angela Piscitelli, a senior, joined in her freshman year because her older sister, Victoria, was a Panther Valley JROTC Battalion Commander.
"This program teaches us about leadership, and it gives us good skills to help us not only in school, but outside, especially in the workforce," she says.
Participating in ceremonies, "gives us a sense of pride in the program, being able to represent the corps and to be able to help our community," she says.
Markovich, a 1984 Panther Valley graduate, and JROTC cadet, is in his fourth year as senior instructor.
"I got so much out of it. The leadership skills, learning to communicate ... JROTC is interactive with students. It's tough to be in charge of a squad or platoon and give them commands. A lot of students can't even get up in front of people," he says.
Participating in military funerals helps students understand the sacrifices veterans have made, Markovich, a retired Army National Guardsman, says.
"Kids don't understand now, what a veteran is. At that age, in high school, you're not thinking about things like that. But participating in military funerals, it does something to you. Honoring the person who has done something great for this country has a lasting impact," he says. "There are things you just don't forget, and that's one of them. You may forget geometry and algebra, but you never that feeling of awe, because you participated."
A Cardinal Brennan High School graduate, Jordan enlisted in the Army in 1990.
"I wish they would have had something like this when I was a kid," he says. "Our program doesn't teach how to solve a math problem, or read a great literary work. But it does teach fundamental things you do need in life. The thing we teach here is how to become a better citizen.
"The students in our program actually run it, with a chain of command. So they are responsible for the leadership of the program, and that's everything from task organization to accomplishing a mission. the other great thing about our program is that it lends itself to community service, getting the 'me' generation thinking about 'them.'"
JROTC cadets are expected to live by a core set of values: Duty, loyalty, selfless service, integrity, personal courage, respect, and honor.
The program, Jordan says, aims to "increase cadets' emotional quotient. there's an intelligence quotient, but if you can't direct that in a positive way, it's no good. So we work on emotional quotient."
Carbon County Director of Veteran's Affairs Henry Desrosiers says the program is invaluable.
"This program aids in the development of our youth while in high school. It develops leadership potential, ethical values and helps them to communicate with others and to think in a logical way. It stresses physical fitness and the importance of good health. It offers structure in one's life, discipline and teamwork. It instills 'respect' (something that is absent in today's society)," Desrosiers says.
"As the American Legion says in its preamble, 'to foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism.' Junior ROTC's intent is 'to motivate young people to be better citizens.' It is a stepping stone for our youth to understand how important this high school and college experience can lead to a successful future in the private sector or in the military. It is a good public relations tool between the school district, the general population and to our veterans organizations.
"The JROTC program is one of the many local programs that lets everyone know that there are many young people willing to sacrifice their time and energy in support of others," he says. "As the Carbon County Director of Veterans Affairs, I am proud of the Panther Valley Junior ROTC's program, staff and to the students who participate. Their assistance to our veterans organizations is well appreciated."