Cadets from the Lake Marion High School Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program set a high standard for their counterparts from across South Carolina during summer training camp at Fort Jackson.
“Brandin Weatherford was the Distinguished Superior Cadet out of all 800 cadets from 62 high schools across South Carolina that participated,” said Sgt. Maj. Harold Brown, LMHS JROTC program instructor. “Ashley Stevens was Distinguished Cadet from a group of 200 people in Delta Company.”
“(Being selected as Distinguished Superior Cadet) entitled me to be the battalion commander during graduation,” Weatherford said.
Alicia Cruz from Lake Marion High was selected as a Distinguished Cadet candidate, but a knee injury prevented her from going before the cadet review board, Brown said.
In all, 41 LMHS cadets applied to go to the annual camp. But due to health issues, family considerations or scheduling conflicts, only 34 made the trip. The group departed from the school on Sunday morning and after a final pre-training meal on the way, reported to Fort Jackson that afternoon.
“At that time, I go and process them and I relinquish control of them,” said Brown, who has taught JROTC for 24 years. “I take them to the company they’re in. I then relinquish control of them, and I have no more control of them until the next Saturday. ... ”
Brown confiscates all electronic devices until Tuesday because the camp doesn’t allow them the first two nights.
“They’re in an environment they’ve never been in, especially first-year cadets,” he said. “They’re around people they’ve never seen before in their life. So, it’s easy to get a little homesick.”
On arrival, cadets from different schools are reorganized into new squads. Having no electronic devices encourages them to talk to each other and build new relationships. As cadets from different parts of the state communicate with each other, they develop bonds that last years -- sometimes for the rest of their lives, Brown said.
A full week of physical training and classroom instruction solidifies the new friendships.
“My favorite part of the training was the TDC, or Teamwork Development Course,” said Weatherford, who lives in Holly Hill with his parents, Jim and Deanne Weatherford. He has participated in JROTC since ninth grade.
“We were broken down into squads of 16 people, and we had different obstacles that we had to overcome,” Weatherford said. So, we had to work as a team.”
“One of the obstacles was a zip line,” he added. “There were two platforms with a cable across, and we had to use ropes to get a seat across. We had to get all our people and our equipment across.”
“My favorite part of the training was the high ropes,” said Stevens, daughter of Jassin Laburd and Frederick Stevens.
Other highlights of the week included marksmanship, obstacle courses, water training exercises and rappelling off a high tower.
“They have to come down backwards off the tower,” Brown said. “That’s the fear thing. That’s the one that separates the women and the men from the girls and the boys.”
“For some of them, being up on that tower and leaning backwards while holding onto the rope and positioning themselves to walk down that wall causes a lot of fear,” he added. “We had some tears coming down, and some of them cried more when they got down. But once they do it, you see the relief on their faces.”
In addition, cadets undertook educational exercises in classrooms at Lower Richland High School. Classroom work focused on subjects such as math, science and engineering.
As the week went on, instructors interviewed cadets who displayed exceptional leadership, inspirational capability and organizational skills, as well as superior military knowledge. Those who did well in the interviews with the promotion boards rose in rank.
“We do very well at summer camp,” Brown said. “We always have honor cadets. Lake Marion is always up there at the top because our cadets are just trained better than anyone else up there.”
Weatherford and Stevens praised Brown and LMHS’s other JROTC program leaders – Lt. Col. Kevin Jefferson and Sgt. Maj. Timothy Mickens – for getting them ready to be successful at camp. The prep work began a month before the camp, when participants received new boots and began hiking terrain like they would encounter at Fort Jackson.
The week culminated on Friday with Organization Day, during which the units competed against one another in events like the egg toss, tug of war, volleyball and softball.
“On Saturday morning, they have the graduation on the same field as (soldiers who complete basic training at Fort Jackson),” Brown said. “They do the march and the pass in review. Many parents attend the event."
Weatherford and Stevens said they feel like different people since returning from camp.
“The main thing our instructor preached was, ‘If you go back the same person you came here as, you’ve wasted your whole week,’” Weatherford said. “You should go back a better leader, a better cadet. You should go back better than what you were when you came.”