AUSTINTOWN, Ohio --
Youngstown Air Reserve Station showed its support for the new Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at Austintown Fitch High School by donating more than 70 Airman battle uniforms, Jan. 11, 2021. The fledgling JROTC program is still within its first year of flight after officially launching in August 2020. The program received interest from the student body and holds a roster of approximately 50 students. Furthering YARS' connection to the new program, two retired 910th Reserve Citizen Airmen accepted the responsibility of leading and building the program from the ground up just weeks before the start of the 2020 fall semester.
Becoming an instructor for a JROTC program first appeared on the radar of retired Col. Kevin Riley, the former 910th Mission Support Group commander and the current senior aerospace science instructor at Austintown Fitch’s JROTC program, after a fellow squadron commander recommended that Riley look into teaching whenever he decided to retire. After 31-years of service, Riley retired from the Air Force Reserve in 2016.
“I originally filed the idea away and forgot about it,” said Riley. “It was in 2019 when my deputy commander, Lt. Col. Colleen VanNatta, retired and became a JROTC instructor in Akron, Ohio, that I started looking to get involved.”
After initially looking into a JROTC position in Erie, Pennsylvania, it took Riley about a year-and-a-half to find the program starting up at Austintown Fitch High School.
Riley said he is grateful for the chance to teach at the high school level, to invest in young people and witness the differences his class has made and will continue to make in their studies, and ultimately, in their attitudes.
Retired Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Marhulik, a former loadmaster for the 910th AW and current aerospace science instructor at Austintown Fitch High School’s JROTC program, similarly found a desire to serve in JROTC through a recommendation by a fellow loadmaster shortly after his retirement. At that time, Marhulik stated he didn’t know much about the program but played around with the idea of becoming an instructor and took interest in it. In March 2020, Marhulik learned of a position at Fitch which motivated him to get the ball rolling. Besides living in the area and some of his children previously attending the school, he felt as though he had more to give after retirement and that the JROTC program was the perfect place to do it.
“I retired,” said Marhulik, “and you’ll find this out as time goes on, even after 33 years, you still have time left in you to serve. I was out by the age of 51, and even then I knew I had more left to give. I wanted to give more and when this came about, I saw it as a calling to keep giving back and getting the younger generation involved in the community.”
Riley and Marhulik agree that in the beginning, it was a challenge to get the program on its feet.
“Being able to reach out to JROTC headquarters as well as other units is very helpful,” said Marhulik. “Although building something up from ground zero can be a task, it has been a lot of fun.”
Having been hired to the position with less than a month before the semester began, Riley and Marhulik had to personally create a curriculum for the first several weeks of the course while they waited for their textbooks to arrive. Although lessons on aerospace science were initially postponed, the duo took it as an opportunity to focus on the basics of marching, military discipline and the Air Force core values of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.
“We added two more,” said Riley, “respect and professionalism.”
Another early challenge was the acquisition of uniforms for the students. Riley said the system that the JROTC program uses to issue uniforms was unavailable early in the semester, so they decided to reach out to surrounding communities, like YARS, in order to fulfill the needs of their program.
“Receiving these uniforms from the base has been such an incredible blessing for us,” said Riley. “Having ABUs gets us where we need to be and helps us market our program to a larger student body.”
Students participating in the first year of the JROTC program receive instruction five days per week for 43-minute periods. Students study topics like the history of flight, the science of flight, leadership development, marching drills, health and wellness studies and various life skills to aid them in life outside the walls of their schools.
“We have noticed a huge difference in some of our students within the first semester,” said Riley. “We’ve gotten feedback from teachers saying students are more productive and counselors are tickled to death with it.”
Riley and Marhulik hope to develop an extracurricular component after the coronavirus lockdown which will include community service and exposure to Air Force careers such as security forces, civil engineering and aircraft maintenance, ultimately with the intent of exposing students to different career paths in life.
“We hope to get the students out to the base to show them what's out there and get them fired up about it,” said Riley.
"You’d be surprised how many people are not aware of local military opportunities," Marhulik said. “Maybe a student isn’t set on active duty but if they still want to be a part of the military, they can be close to home at a reserve base like Youngstown and see what the Reserve has to offer.”
Although there is certainly a military structure to the course, Riley and Marhulik abstain from a military training instructor attitude.
“We make it as positive as possible while maintaining structure,” said Marhulik. “We want them to be positive, to think positively and think critically for themselves.
One Austintown Fitch JROTC student said, “The stuff that we learn here, we might not have had to do yet but will help us later on in life. The other day I had to use what I learned (from JROTC) at home, and I thought it was pretty cool that I could figure it out myself.”
Another student said, “Our JROTC teachers treat us as mutuals rather than just students. It’s a different level of respect with them.”
Where some may view JROTC as a recruiting tool for the armed forces, the objectives of the program are primarily to educate and train high school cadets in citizenship and life skills promote community service, instill a sense of responsibility and develop character, leadership and self-discipline through education and instruction in air and space fundamentals and the Air Force’s core values. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, otherwise known as STEM courses, are also important disciplines the JROTC incorporates. The program at Austintown Fitch puts to rest the age-old question of, “Will I really need this after high school?” By taking the curriculum, students are learning in other classrooms and it challenges them to apply those teachings in their lives, reinforcing what they are learning. In one class, Riley and Marhulik asked the students to use principles from algebra and geometry in order to estimate how much it would cost to paint and carpet their classroom.
One of the goals shared by Riley and Marhulik for JROTC at Austintown Fitch is to achieve status as a viable program with a roster of at least ten percent of the school population.
“We have been given about three years to enroll about 120 students,” said Riley. “We have 50 in our first semester. That was starting two weeks before the beginning of the semester and not really advertising the program or really marketing it in any way. Once we do, we expect more people to come in and easily hit our goal within three years.”
Retired veterans or current service members who are interested in volunteering for drill and ceremony training or hands-on skill development, please refer to the Austintown Local Schools website’s volunteer information section as listed below.