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EAST CHICAGO — They celebrated in style. One year after East Chicago school officials announced the start of a new U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, about 100 students, school staff and community supporters — some in full uniform — came together for a first-of-its-kind East Chicago military ball.

A drill team, sabers in hand, flanked the path into the Majestic Star Casino ballroom as cadets, program leaders and distinguished guests found their seats.

They toasted the U.S. Army, their battalion and the commander in chief; named incoming student leaders; and celebrated cadet success in a program that was years in the making.

“Take pride in what you do because you are the first doing it,” North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan said, delivering a charge to the first class of cadets. “There’s an added pressure that when you go out in the community and young boys and girls in the third and fourth grade see you in those uniforms that you have a great sense of pride in yourself knowing that they are looking up to you and you could make a great deal of difference in their lives.”

Building community leaders

The School City of East Chicago’s Inaugural JROTC Military Ball on June 1 was a celebration of what only seemed to be a distant idea a year before.

Last May, school officials announced their intention to start a JROTC program in the fall — something East Chicago had wanted for years. With federal funding for some such programs scaled back across the county, Mrvan said, it was a team effort among the East Chicago community to make the current program possible.

“East Chicago — it was truly a lightning strike,” he said at the military ball.

The program started with a simple goal; to build leaders in the community. It also could deter crime among students, then-East Chicago School Board member Stacy Winfield said as school leaders announced the program.

In its first year, EC Central’s JROTC was built from the ground up by retired Maj. Kenneth Woods — relying on advice from Gary’s retired Col. Richard Ligon and the support of East Chicago administrators including Superintendent Paige McNulty and EC Central Principal Dee Etta Wright.

More than 120 freshmen and sophomores enrolled in the fall semester elective class. The program established color guard and drill teams and marched in East Chicago’s Mexican Independence Day parade last September.

The class met five days a week, teaching lessons on everything from military rank structure and etiquette to goal-setting and money management. Weekly uniform inspection and physical training for the JROTC’s Cadet Challenge taught discipline and responsibility — skills Woods said can applied to academics outside of JROTC.

“Other classes teach you mentally,” rising junior and JROTC cadet Karen Jimenez said. “JROTC teaches you morally.”

Getting the East Chicago program off the ground has carried its own lessons for its founding JROTC instructor. About 35 students dropped out after the first semester, Woods said, but he’s OK with that.

“We want them to come here because they want to be here,” Woods said. “From first semester we got the ones who had to be here. Now, the second semester we have the ones who want to be here.”

Woods also brought in Sgt. Angelus Logan at the start of the second semester to assist with his daily classes, or platoons as they would be called in the Army.

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Lessons learned outside of class

Nine East Chicago cadets extended their training in a weeklong JROTC Cadet Leadership Challenge camp this summer at Camp Atterbury, in Edinburgh, Ind. The cadets trained alongside students from across the state and developed teamwork skills to share with fellow EC Central students next year.

The program also has helped provide information about service after high school and connect students to military recruiters. Jimenez said she now wants to go into the Navy.

“There’s a JROTC line: ‘Motivate younger students to be better citizens,’” Jimenez said. “At first I didn’t think much of it, but once I joined the class it did motivate me to be a better citizen because now I want to serve my country and give back to the community.”

Cadet Brandon Thigpen, who plans to follow in his father’s Army footsteps, said being a part of JROTC will position him to receive a higher rank when enlisting after high school. The rising junior, who moved from Kentucky last year, said he’s built new friendships through JROTC.

“Those are the people I depend on and trust because they’re responsible,” Thigpen said. “I trust them more because I know them more.”

Underway for a year, the program is working to recruit its next class of freshman cadets and is transferring more responsibility to student leaders, allowing cadets to lead the charge in regular uniform inspection, extracurricular programs and more.

Thigpen said he would encourage any of his East Chicago classmates to take a chance on JROTC.

“They want to keep you successful,” Jimenez said of the program. “Whatever they can help you do, they will.”

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.