How I Found This Story
I ran into the cadets on October 10, 2010, when they marched in a parade in Bellows Falls, Vermont.
It was a clear Fall day, and the sunlight was painfully bright, as it can be in northern New England when the summer warmth still lingers in the air but the nights already whisper of the coming winter. I had a hard time making my brand new, bulky Nikon D3s camera, nicknamed “The Beast,” handle those conditions. And then, glancing up from the camera's jumpy meters, hearing a marching band approach the historic town square, I was delighted to discover that it was preceded by a group of teenagers in military uniforms.
For a long time I had wanted to make a photo story about a JROTC program, as part of my book project “American Moments,” for which I have been following young Americans in their daily lives since 1996, in search of an answer to the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” I hoped looking into JROTC would bring me closer to understanding the importance of the military in American culture. In The Netherlands, where I come from, it would be unthinkable to have a high school class like this.
I ran after them and caught up with the unit just when they had boarded their school bus and were about to take off. I knocked on the door, and down came a tall uniformed guy with a green beret on his head. That didn't register with me though; I was more intrigued by the way his trousers bloused over a pair of shiny black laced-up boots. These, I would learn later on, are only worn by paratroopers. I was pretty ignorant of anything military at that time. I certainly wouldn't have been able to tell that the golden oak leaf on the beret made him a Major. He was very friendly, very polite and forthcoming when I told him about my project about the youth of America and asked if it would be possible to come to the school to take pictures in his JROTC class, maybe for a week or two?
As happened more than once when working on stories for “American Moments,” this one soon took on a life of its own. Before long I was, as my husband Bas likes to call it, “embedded” with the JROTC of Fall Mountain. At one point, Major Cenney even granted me the honorary rank of Sergeant Major.
I must admit that I came into the Flag Room with the same misconception many Dutch people, and even many Americans, would have: that JROTC was about recruitment. After John Cenney had made certain I understood it was not, I was still left with the fact that here was a high school class based on military structure, with children in military uniform, performing Drill and shooting air rifles. Also, many of the cadets come from families with a military tradition and they often express their desire to follow that path themselves.
Once the cadets began to confide in me about their lives and I became friendly with their two teachers, who also began to share personal stories with me, I understood I had found the right place to learn, not only about the military in American society, but about many other aspects of American life I still didn't really know about. A high school is not an isolated world, like a military base; the community that this one belongs to is like any ordinary American community – and being very ordinary, some of its young people become soldiers.
During the early days of the project I talked with my friend Jacqueline, in whose house in Drewsville, New Hampshire, I was living, about her reasons for not wanting her son to attend JROTC. She remarked about the cadets: “They're quite intelligent, but they've never learned to think for themselves. They're following orders.” One might expect that from a class structured according to military principles, but I found it not to be true. On the contrary, many of these kids are forced by circumstances to make more essential decisions about their own lives than any teenager should have to make at such an early age.
John Cenney remarked one time that he wished he saw his cadets smile more. “That's the way children should be: happy!” At least for a while, this JROTC class offers its cadets, as many told me themselves, the camaraderie, structure, direction and security often missing at home. And that helps them find their own way in life.
Being a member of Fall Mountain's JROTC “family” from October 2010 until April 2013 has given me a precious opportunity to look behind the camouflage of multiple generations. I made this book to open the door of the Flag Room and make windows in its walls, for people to see what JROTC really is about.