From today's Metro section of the NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com
"Where Semper Fi Is a Password
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
On the fifth floor of Thomas Jefferson High School, three flights up from where a student shot two classmates dead a decade ago, Rasheen Malone found a family, a purpose and a way to get out of East New York.
Twice a week for three years, Rasheen has gone to Room 545 for classes offered by the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, Marine Corps division. He has learned how to navigate by the North Star, recognize heat exhaustion and stop arterial bleeding, any of which holds his interest more than geometry theorems or literary terms.
He has risen to the rank of cadet staff sergeant, even as he has struggled with the vagaries of life in an urban high school in one of the nation's most desolate neighborhoods.
After graduating in June, he will report to Marine Corps boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., the entry point for what he hopes will be "a serious life."
Rasheen, soft-spoken and intense, is one of 144 students in Jefferson's J.R.O.T.C. program, which a former principal started after the fatal shooting in 1992 made the school a national symbol of teenage violence and urban despair. The program has never been popular — the cadets draw more taunts than compliments when they wear their dress blues and snap-salute one another in the halls.
But as the war in Iraq has played out, Jefferson's 1,600 students have paid more attention than usual to the J.R.O.T.C. cadets. Both the war and the attention — some flattering, much not — have made the cadets think hard about the military and why they have embraced it so fervently.
Only about 4 percent of New York City's 1.1 million public school students enlist in the military after graduation, according to the Education Department, possibly reflecting the attitudes of a Northeastern city, which for years has sent a disproportionately low number of residents into the armed services. Of the 38,668 new Marine recruits who reported to boot camp in the 2002 fiscal year, only 992, or 2.6 percent, came through the New York recruiting station, which covers the city and Long Island.
In East New York, to pledge loyalty to the military is to find camaraderie and direction — some cadets lovingly refer to their instructors as "my pops," and all know that the Marines can give them a chance at a free college degree or a steady job. Yet it is also to raise the suspicions of classmates and neighbors, many of whom are cynical about a government that they believe neglects poor neighborhoods and members of minority groups.
"Some kids salute us with the wrong hand, say, `Oh, you want to go fight the white man's war on old Hussein,' " Rasheen said recently, speaking in urgent bursts in the grim fluorescent light of Room 545. "But most of us here are mature, and we are strong enough to just keep our heads up and keep on walking and know what we're walking for."
Or, as Carlos Castillo, a quiet freshman who joined the program with his older sister, says to his taunters: "I know I'm doing something with my life. How about you do something with yours?"
Their sounding boards are Sgt. Maj. Edwin Garcia and First Sgt. Sergio Gallardo, the only Jefferson teachers who wear camouflage and combat boots. Sergeant Garcia is lean and barking — "the scary guy," as Latoya Riddell, 17, put it — while Sergeant Gallardo is bulldog-shaped and fun-loving. Though neither ever saw combat, they discuss it with relish, entertaining Rasheen in their cramped office during lunch.
The Marine Corps created its J.R.O.T.C. program in 1964 — not, technically, as a recruitment tool, but to educate high school students about the military and to teach leadership skills. There are now 224 Marine Corps J.R.O.T.C. programs in the country, including 8 in New York State and 2 in the city, at Jefferson and at Tottenville High School on Staten Island.
Unlike college students in R.O.T.C. programs, J.R.O.T.C. cadets have no military service obligation. But while most of Jefferson's cadets do not enlist in the military after graduation, the number who do is increasing and may reach 15 this year, Sergeant Garcia said.
"They want to be part of what's going on in the world, especially fighting terrorism," he said.
Sergeant Garcia, who came to Jefferson in 1998 after being stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, said many students who joined J.R.O.T.C. were looking for "the pride of belonging to something." In East New York, he said, gangs are the main groups offering membership to teenagers.
Then there are what Sergeant Garcia calls the discipline cases, a dozen or so students who are sent to the program each year as a punishment for bad behavior. They never stay.
"It's not cool to wear the uniform," he explained.
But the Jefferson cadets are not always objects of ridicule. Sometimes when Rasheen is walking the streets of East New York, where schools and housing projects are the tallest buildings and the subway ride to Times Square takes 45 minutes, he hears someone yell out a car window, "Yo, young Devil Dog!" He knows "Devil Dog" is a nickname for marines, and that he has a reputation to uphold.
"Being in this program, it changes your character because of the fact that you're representing something," Rasheen said. "They know I'm an R.O.T.C., and they know I'm representing the Marine Corps. When they greet me like that — like, `Ooh-rah, sir' — I got to be careful what I do and how I do it."
He was not always so scrupulous. Sergeant Garcia said that when Rasheen transferred to Jefferson as a freshman, he was perpetually angry and could not stay out of trouble. Another star cadet, Temenior Ikomi, the company's executive officer, had been kicked out of one high school for chronic truancy and another for fighting.
Rasheen said his turning point came when his grandmother died. "I didn't care about nothing," he said, "but when she died I said, `Let me go ahead and do something so I can show her.' " He has 10 brothers and sisters, and he will be the first in his family to graduate from high school, he said. He recently left home because of family discord, and is planning his exit from Brooklyn alone in a rented room.
"I want to become somebody and really cherish something," he said. "I want to travel around the world. I haven't been to too many places but Brooklyn. What you can learn in the military is twice what you can learn in college."
He does not dream so much of distant desert battlefields, but of officers' clubs and base parties and paid vacations.
"Marines happen to have vacations; we happen to have time; we work 7 to 4 like your mother does," he said.
Carlos Castillo, his freshman protégé, dreamily chimes in: "We play around on the bases. We socialize."
Even with the possibility of going to the battlefront, life as a marine seems more secure to Rasheen than life in East New York, which has long had some of the city's highest crime and poverty rates. His cousin, he said, died recently after being shot five times in a Brooklyn nightclub.
If he should die in military combat, he said, it would be easier on his mother than if he died on the streets of East New York.
"Someone will go to her door in uniform," he said, "not the police saying, `We don't know who killed your son.' "
Rasheen and the other cadets are less enthusiastic about the military's commander in chief. During a recent after-school session, only two students, Carlos and his sister, raised their hands when a visitor asked if they admired President Bush. Others snorted, thumped their fists on their desks or looked embarrassed.
"A lot of people associate us with Bush," Latoya Riddell said ruefully.
Last week, Rasheen and a few dozen other Jefferson cadets took a Greyhound bus to Marine headquarters in Quantico, Va., for a "leadership development academy," the highlight of their school year. This is the second year that Rasheen has attended the program, which features obstacle courses, night-vision training and rappelling from a 50-foot tower.
Last year, Rasheen was scared at the last second and clung to the top of the tower until the marine waiting for him at the bottom announced that there was only one way down. This year, with his life as a marine about to begin, he was eager to prove he had no fear. He ended up going down twice.
"It's not like I think I'm superman or something," he said, "but my strength is unstoppable."