- Associated Press - Monday, November 12, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Daisy Moreno’s eyes followed the black shoes of the nine freshmen marching past her, looking for any minor imperfection in a 59-point drill routine. She barked commands at the underclassmen for much of the hour-long practice, but began to offer praise as the students showed improvement with their sharp turns, expressionless faces and steps in unison.

It was just two years earlier that Moreno was in their shoes as a newcomer to the Crooked Oak High School Air Force Junior ROTC, trying to keep up with the program’s rules and structure in this military-like environment.

But now Moreno was a junior and had become the program’s drill team commander, a role she said requires a balance between being strict and knowing when to joke around.

“JROTC has made me very comfortable, they treat me as family and I’ve found my voice,” Moreno, who wore a button-up light blue shirt with patches on her shoulder signifying her status as lieutenant colonel in the program, told The Oklahoman .

Crooked Oak is a 365-student high school in southeast Oklahoma City, located among warehouses and small manufacturing plants, with a steady stream of 18-wheelers passing through toward the highway.

The glitzy Oklahoma City skyline is visible across Interstate 40, but seemingly a world away from this mostly Hispanic community with a poverty rate double the state average.

“These kids understand work ethic,” said Col. Bill Tully, the school’s senior aerospace instructor and one of two retired members of the Air Force who run the school’s JROTC program. “They face many disadvantages, but these kids know how to work and we try to build on that to help them build character.”

Discipline, character and resiliency can be a ticket to a better future for these students, Tully said.

Around 100 students are part of the Crooked Oak JROTC. They participate in drill and physical competitions, perform color guard duties at events across the region and volunteer at food banks, neighborhood beautification programs and other community service events.

Crooked Oak is one of the smallest high schools in the country to host an Air Force JROTC program, but has been credited as one of the nation’s best units based on recent inspections.

Inside the JROTC building on the Crooked Oak campus, students cycle through for classes on leadership, air and space fundamentals, manage the snack shop during lunch and hang out in a rec hall.

At the back of the building, in a former auto mechanic shop, Moreno oversees drill practice with a competition just days away.

“I know how to be a leader now, I know how to take control of my life,” said Moreno, who is thinking of joining the Air Force and wants to become a doctor.

While JROTC offers students like Moreno a taste of life in the Air Force, the goal isn’t to funnel students into military service, said Master Sgt. Wes Wheeland, an instructor at Crooked Oak for the last 13 years.

“This isn’t about recruitment,” Wheeland said. “One kid described it really cool about a month ago, he said it’s like family up here. That choked me up a little bit because that’s what this is about.”

Uniforms, haircut requirements and other military-like regulations may not be appealing to every teenager, but Daniel Matamoros said he was hooked as a freshman by the structure of the program.

“I’ve learned about stepping up and about being a leader,” said Matamoros, who is now a senior and a JROTC corps commander. “Freshman year I tried to be somebody I wasn’t but drill actually got me to be something. I stepped up to be a commander.

“I consider this place a second home to me.”

The Air Force has nearly 900 JROTC programs and places retired Air Force officers as instructors. The Air Force pays for uniforms and some supplies, and partners with local school districts to fund instructor pay.

Tully, 56, who became a JROTC instructor in 2015, grew up in West Virginia, served in the Air Force for 25 years, and was working for an Oklahoma City defense contractor when he got the invitation to come to Crooked Oak.

“I grew up kind of like these kids; not a lot of structure, but a lot of poverty,” Tully said. “For me, finding something that gives you structure and gives you a bigger meaning, I latched on to it. I say all the time that the Air Force saved me.”

A few years before Tully retired from the Air Force, his wife passed away after a battle with cancer, leaving him a single parent to two teenage daughters.

“All of a sudden I realized in the first week that I had to be both mom and dad,” Tully said. “Getting more involved in my teenage daughters’ emotions, that was the biggest challenge. But you overcome that with lots of love and hugs.”

Tully’s work as a JROTC instructor also carries with it dual parenting duties.

“A lot of these kids don’t have male role models at home, so I fill in when I can,” Tully said. “But you also provide oversight like a mom. Basically, if these kids need something they know we are here. You will see a lot of kids just hang out here because they know it’s safe.”

Confidence is another trait of JROTC, Tully said.

“You feel better about yourself here. You see what you can do,” said Miguel Matancillas, when asked about the rules and requirements of JROTC.

“My freshman year I was goofing off too much in class. My first year here I would always try to interrupt the class with a joke,” Matancillas said. “But they showed me there is a time to play and there is a time to listen. It took me two years to actually get that.”


Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

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