A Cadet with the Jackson (Miss.) school district walks off the 3-meter dive during combat water survival training this week at Fort Knox's Gammon Pool. Photo by Corey Ohlenkamp

A Cadet with the Jackson (Miss.) school district walks off the 3-meter dive during combat water survival training this week at Fort Knox’s Gammon Pool. Photo by Corey Ohlenkamp

By Sydney Callis
Leader’s Training Course

To truly know the strength of one’s character, it must be tested. The 236 Cadets from Junior ROTC programs in Mississippi learn that lesson firsthand this week.

After a nine-hour drive, the high school students, most of them from the Jackson Public School System, arrived on Fort Knox rearing and ready to face the challenging activities the Leader’s Training Course offers, including rappelling off a 50-foot high tower, combat water survival training, waterborne training and a climbing and ropes course.

“We want this to be a life-changing, life-enhancing event for our Cadets,” said Col. Paul Willis, JROTC director for Jackson Public School System. “We want them to experience things here they haven’t had the opportunity to do before, and see things they haven’t seen.”

Students from the Jackson district have been training for a week each summer at Fort Knox for the last several years. Not only does the training expose participants to Army life, but it also offers cadre of the Leader’s Training Course an opportunity to solidify the functionality of their training sites before Senior ROTC cadets arrive.

Some activities pushed Cadets out of their comfort zones. During combat water survival training, preparing for the 3-meter unexpected entry into a 10-foot deep pool became a mental game, said Chelsea Dortch of Murrah High School.

“It was very nerve-racking,” Dortch said. “I was terrified, but I had to just go up there and do it. I told myself I could do it.”

Lowered over their faces, the ski masks covered looks of trepidation and hesitance. Shouts of “You can do it” and “It’s only water” echoed throughout the Gammon Pool facility as fellow Cadets, cadre and trainers offered their support.

“I was nervous,” said Gary Easterling of Hattiesburg High School. “When he (a trainer atop the high-dive) let go of our shoulders and said jump, I tensed up. Everybody’s looking at you, but then when you jump off, you’re relieved you did it and have fun with it.”

Taking one step forward, eyes covered and arms lifted high clutching the rifle, cadets jumped into the pool.

“It doesn’t look very high from the ground, but then how deep it is from the bottom with how high it is, you have to have that determination and motivation to jump,” said Joshua Ratliff of Lanier High School. “You conquer one of your biggest fears, and it’s very exciting. I actually did it twice. It was double times the fun.”

The strong sense of teamwork and support radiated out of the different training sites and the themes of courage and self-confidence remained prevalent as the cadets continued training.

“We have become a strong platoon,” said Tanganyka Crockrum of Hattiesburg High School. “We help each other out, and it’s a good thing. I like helping people along the way and having help along the way.”

Crockrum conquered her fear of heights during the rappelling activity with help from her fellow Cadets and trainers.

“I was crying, and it was really hard,” Crockrum said. “I just had to keep my faith and keep doing what they were telling me to do. Everyone was encouraging me.”

The five-day visit — four spent on Fort Knox and one spent touring sites in nearby Louisville — provides the opportunity for high school students to experience the Army lifestyle and values firsthand. Saturday’s opening ceremony reiterated the seven Army values: respect, selfless service, honor, personal courage, loyalty, duty and integrity.

“We hope to develop the leadership skills, the character and the positive values in all of the Cadets here,” Willis said.

At the opening ceremony, Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Martinez emphasized the significance the visit can have on Cadets’ lives if they take the lessons they learn during the training and use them in daily life.

“You’re the future of this country,” Martinez said. “Take pride in that. Believe in yourself. No matter where you come from, no matter what your background is, no matter what situation you find yourself in, always believe in yourself. Never give up. Stay fighting all the way.”


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