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Lincoln schools looking for a few good students to join Air Force Junior ROTC

The Pesina brothers are something of a tradition in Northeast’s Air Force Junior ROTC program.

The twins, Jose and Juan, are sophomores, Sergio is a freshman, and all three are following the lead of their older brother and sister as members of Lincoln’s only Junior ROTC program.

They’re there because their grandpa served in the military, and their mom wanted to give them a taste of what that might be like.

“Our mother wanted us to do this,” said Jose. “And we just kind of like it.”

J.P Wilson also comes from a military family and wanted to follow in those footsteps, so the Southwest junior makes his way across town every morning for classes and -- especially -- the drill team that competes in color guard and rifle drills.

“I get to spin (rifles), I get to meet kids I wouldn’t otherwise meet,” he said.

And on Monday morning -- while most Northeast students began to gather outside the school waiting for their first class at 8 a.m. -- the Pesina brothers, Wilson and 72 other students marched in the west gym.

Most were in uniform -- shined shoes, ironed shirts under crisp navy jackets -- to welcome R. Wayne Barron, the Region 7 director here from Alabama to inspect the program.

As part of the routine inspection -- the second one for the program -- Barron evaluated the support from the school and district, the instructors and the cadets.

He was also looking at numbers.

Because of Northeast's size, the program is expected to have at least 100 students.

Since it began in 2009, Northeast’s program has averaged between 60 and 80 students, a fact that’s kept the program on probation.

“This is a concern to us. There are other schools across the nation willing to meet the viability standard,” Barron said. “We need to do everything in our power to bring in more cadets.”

Lt. Col. Terence Plumb, who has led Northeast’s program since 2014, is on board.

“We believe strongly in the program and want it to succeed,” he said.

The Northeast program -- which is open to students across the district -- is one of five Air Force Junior ROTC programs in the state and among 896 worldwide. Other military branches have Junior ROTC programs as well. The biggest -- and oldest -- is the Army’s which has 1,500 to 2,000 programs.

Only about 5 percent of the Air Force programs are under the recommended number of participants, though when Plumb took over the program three years ago he assumed the enrollment numbers were inevitable because it's not near a base.

Then he got a visit from the regional director, who told him he’d headed a program and had overcome similar challenges -- and offered some tips to increase enrollment.

Plumb and his cadets jumped in. They gave a presentation to the school board in September and put fliers in the packet of information that goes out to incoming freshmen. They adopted one of the trails, their name now on a sign announcing cadets will keep the trail clean.

They’ve reached out to middle schoolers, hosting an aviation and space program after school at two Northeast Lincoln schools. The cadets have gotten into chess -- then got themselves invited to the middle school chess clubs, where they can hand out T-shirts and talk up their program while figuring how to protect their king. 

Plumb thinks their efforts are making a difference.

The program ended last year with 64 cadets. This year they have 76 and in January enrollment will rise to 82. Of their current members, eight come from parochial schools and nine from public high schools other than Northeast.

Despite being under 100 cadets, Plumb said it’s a strong program, which is supported by both the school and district. It’s also the only one in Lincoln.

“We think we are in a good position,” he said. “We’ve always felt good about the quality. It’s just the numbers.”

The program is not a military recruiting tool, it's a way to build citizenship, Plumb said, by focusing on leadership skills, discipline and contributing to the community. 

Students attend academic-based classes; a physical fitness program, learn to march and have weekly uniform inspections. They also have a drill team and a host of field trips and other activities. 

There's an annual military ball; the group raises the school flag each morning; and last week they organized a school assembly honoring veterans.

“In a really good ROTC program, the cadets are running it,” Barron said. 

Plumb said the program is a place to belong beyond sports or band. He and Master Sgt. Trent Woodruff mentor students, getting to know them and helping them with their post-high school plans.

“We use the tools of the military to help them be successful,” he said.

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

LINCOLN, NEB. - 11/13/2017 - A line forms at the entrance of the Hall of Justice to go through the security checkpoint Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, around 2 p.m. KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star

TedKirk / TED KIRK, Journal Star 

Nebraska forward Jack McVeigh (10) gets an easy two as North Texas guard Roosevelt Smart (3) can only watch in first-half action at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.