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JROTC program again earns national honor
North Forsyth High School students, from right, Leland Schoonover, Thomas Hartwell, Muhamed Hodzic and Jacob Polgar take part in drill team practice Tuesday, while being instructed by Drew Williams, far left. The school’s JROTC program recently earned national recognition. - photo by Autumn McBride
While the drill team takes a water break indoors, one freshman remains outside to practice her rifle spins.

Stephanie Grove has been in the North Forsyth High School Marine Corps JROTC for just a few weeks, but knows she has a lot to live up to.

North’s program recently became the first school in Georgia to earn the title of national Naval Honor School five consecutive years.

The honor is bestowed upon the top 20 percent of the nation’s more than 850 JROTC programs, said Senior Marine Instructor Maj. Mac Kelly.

Cadet leaders agreed that receiving the award has several benefits for students seeking higher education or a path in the military.

But mainly, as senior Drew Williams put it, “it’s a pride thing.”

Though the seniors may be looking to join the military, he said they want to ensure pride in their school by teaching younger students everything they’ve learned.

“We’ve set that standard,” Williams said. “We want to replace ourselves with people who are as good or better so we can continue our legacy.”
Kelly, a retired Marine, said the legacy took some years to build.

“Our first couple years here, we got very, very involved and we had to do all the training,” he said. “But part of the ROTC curriculum is to train them to take over.”

Kelly said he fights the urge to jump in sometimes, so his students can gain leadership abilities.

His face beamed with pride as he watched Williams bark out commands during a practice this week.

“He’s taking charge,” Kelly said. “Notice his choice of pronouns — my drill team.”

Kelly attributed the students’ stakes in their own success to the popularity of the program, which this year boasts a record enrollment of about 200. Being a Naval Honor School probably doesn’t hurt either.

The award is based on several categories, including how the group operates as a unit, competition scores, involvement in other activities, academic achievement and student athletes.

Since the award encompasses so many aspects, the JROTC cadets often recruit friends for other school clubs and activities.

“We definitely encourage one another and want to see each other excel,” said Josh Moore, who recently won the individual Legion of Valor award for the southeast region.

Cadets said winning the Naval Honor award for North gives them advantages on college applications and in getting selected for service academies.

Four years in JROTC also earns them a “free promotion” if they enlist in the military, said Williams, who has already joined the Marine Corps.

Even if they don’t opt for the military, the qualities honed in JROTC are helpful, said Trevor Brown, who can already see his leadership skills developing in the classroom.

Also, the emphasis on community service encourages the members to be informed and productive citizens, Brown said.

North is the only Forsyth County school to offer the program, so “it’s not uncommon for people to transfer just so they can be in ROTC,” Moore said.

Jared Smith did just that, knowing he wanted to get involved in something military oriented.

“I didn’t really know that much coming in my freshman year,” he said. “But now that I know all the benefits ... it’s definitely a motivator for me.”

The program boasts many success stories, both in and out of the military, Kelly said. He sees the potential for more in the current group.

During a recent trip for high school units at Fort Knox, the top 20 students from North were the envy of the other groups, Kelly said. Their discipline earned them the title of Marines, while the other students were referred to as cadets.

“In the Marine Corps, you don’t get the title ‘Marine’ until your 10th and a half week at bootcamp,” Kelly said. “That’s a sacred moment. These kids, the Army already calls them Marines.”