I originally joined Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (NJROTC) in high school to get out of doing any real exercise. I was willing to squeeze my fat, adolescent body into a uniform once a week if it meant limiting my exposure to the track. Once I was in, I realized that I really liked the structure that the program provided, and so began my love for the armed services. Sure, you get yelled at and belittled every now and again, but that fit with my already-low view of myself, so I didn’t mind that so much. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I found it funny on a lot of levels.
After my freshman year, I stuck around and started getting more involved with its many extracurricular facets. I started out in Academic Team, which was a lot like the ROTC version of Academic Decathlon – memorize stuff and take a test. I did well in that, and got to go to competitions where I watched my friends who were in unarmed and armed drill team, and who competed in relay races, and pushup and situp competitions. True to form, I thought, “I can do those things better than those people are doing those things,” so I joined each of them one by one as I shed the baby weight (growing helped, but I think my overly-competitive nature did more to get me in shape than anything else).
Soon, I was spending most of my lunches in the NJROTC room. I was hanging out with my fellow cadets after school. My first girlfriend was ROTC. So was my second. And sort of my third. The small set of people I still talk to regularly – all from JROTC. It’s safe to say that it was one of the most formative parts of my teen years.
I excelled at all things NJROTC. I got medals and ribbons and promotions; I was given command of the armed drill team and the academic team in my junior year. Unfortunately, this coincided with my discovery of the satisfactions of delinquency. I regularly chose not to go to class that year, as staying home to play videogames, going to a movie, going to the beach, or pretty much any other activity was more appealing to me than school. I’d still show up for practices and ROTC classes most of the time, but my grades in everything else suffered because of my absences.
The amount of pushups I was doing as a reprimand for my misconduct also helped get me in good physical shape, but did nothing for my grades. I finished junior year with two D’s and two F’s, meaning I had passed only a third of my classes that year (I still got 4’s and 5’s on the AP exams, so I got college credit for the courses, just not high school credit). But who gives a shit about grades? I was set up to be part of the Top 6 (the highest ranking folks) in ROTC in my senior year, and that’s all I really cared about.
They announced Top 6 at the end of the yearly competition between all of the classes. I sat on the bleachers and listened to the names of some of closest friends read out over the loudspeaker – six names, none of which were mine. It felt like I got punched in the gut. I thought there must’ve been a mistake. I clearly had the most command presence, and if there was gonna be a popular vote, I would have won it hands-down. I ranted and raved and punched shit, then got called into the Commander’s office (the retired Naval Commander who taught the high school class), and had it all explained to me.
“You passed hardly any of your classes, Farrell,” he told me in a stern tone.
“I got an A in ROTC! Doesn’t that count for anything?!”
“Sure, but you can’t say that you’re modeling good behavior and leading from the front when you’re failing so many of your classes. At some point, you’re going to have to acknowledge that the rules apply to you, too!”
I didn’t. I couldn’t. I stormed out of the office, and out of JROTC. Well, not immediately. I stuck around for another semester as the dedicated nuisance of the unit. I continued my string of bad behavior, and I used my leadership potential to negatively influence anyone who would listen. Was I good? Sure, I was good at all of the same things I had been good at previously. Was I a good leader? No, I was not. My anger blinded me and got in the way of any self improvements that I might have made. After leaving the unit, I still hung around like some latchkey kid, pretending I was too cool for everything.
I went on to get the ROTC scholarship after high school, but I think it was too late for me at that point. Misconduct was my norm, and once that’s got its hooks in you, it’s hard to turn away from – being bad does truly feel so good (until you have to deal with the ramifications). Were I shooting myself in the foot in a more literal way, I think it’s safe to say that I’d have had no foot left fairly early on. Then at least I might have stopped.