Eugene DeCrisci's father left late last fall for Saudi Arabia, a fact that sharply brings home the meaning of the uniforms they wear.

From a distance, the uniforms are identical -- standard Army Class A's with olive drab jacket and trousers, black shoes and tie.

The difference is in the insignia. The father's identifies him asa sergeant first class in the Reserve; the son's, as a first lieutenant in the Junior ROTC. The father's uniform carries a military obligation. The son's does not.

Eugene, an Elkridge resident, is a junior at Howard High School, one of three schools in the county offeringJROTC programs. Atholton has an Army unit and Oakland Mills an Air Force JROTC.

"My father wanted to go so we wouldn't have to go, to make it safe for us. I think that's why they join, to protect their families," Eugene said.

Students' comments suggest they have given serious thought to the implications of military service.

Cadet Pfc. Jeffrey Dorman, a sophomore from Columbia in his first year of JROTC,hopes to win admission to the Air Force Academy.

His perspective on military service was formed when his family lived in Germany for between 1984 and 1989 and many of his friends were military dependents.

"Our behavior represented our country," he says. "I believe in this country and the principles it stands for, and I'm willing to die for it."

Cadet Maj. Jerome Phillips, Howard High battalion commander and a senior from Elkridge, is already in the Army Reserve.

He will leave for basic training after graduation, and then, "Whatever they decide, I do it," he says.

And young DeCrisci says his father is an example for him.

"I'm kind of proud of my father and what he'saccomplished. In some respects, I'd like to be like him and follow in his footsteps."

Although high school ROTC involves no military commitment, many of the 83 cadets in the Howard High program hope to attend college on ROTC scholarships, enter service academies, or enlist after high school, where their JROTC experience will gain them an extra stripe at the end of basic training.

The six-year-old Army JROTC program draws high praise from principal Eugene C. Streagle.

"Every kind of kid you can imagine can get in there and be successful: black, white, male, female, special education students," Streagle says.

The JROTC program is designed to teach leadership, citizenship,map reading, first aid and military history -- but not weapons training, strategy or tactics.

Sullivan Brown, the unit's senior instructor and a retired chief warrant officer II, has seen the program produce some dramatic changes, most recently in Jerome, the young man Brown selected as commander this year.

In the ninth grade, Jerome hung out with what he describes as "deadbeats," maintained a C average and signed up for JROTC because he needed a practical arts credit, not because he was particularly interested in the program.

He disliked military rules at first, especially the rule that required him to cut his long hair.

But once he got into JROTC, he liked it and started working to bring up his grades and take responsibilities in the program. Today, his grade-point average is 3.8, just shy of straight A's. "He's gone through a transformation," says Brown.

Some of the cadets see JROTC as a help in meeting career goals, regardless of whether they go into military service. Tamikka Carter, a senior from Columbia who is cadet captain and battalion executive officer in the Howard JROTC, wants to be a lawyer. She may not go into military service,but if she does, she decided she'd rather be at the top of the chainof command than at the bottom.

"I'm the type of person who likes to tell and not be told," she says. "If you're going into the service,it should be premeditated. You have to think about it very deeply, not only because of war but because of the discipline."

Cadet Pfc. Norma Hurley, a freshman from Elkridge who came to Howard High for the ROTC program, says she has gained self-confidence in her first four months in the program.

Norma, who spent nine years in Catholic school, will need all the self-confidence she can muster to meet her goals:attend the Naval Academy and learn to fly F-15s.

Instructor Brown, a Vietnam veteran who spent 21 years in the Army, says he sets demanding standards for the students.

Rewards and promotions are based on academic standing and performance in the program.

Cadet officers, forexample, must have at least a C average in their other courses and aB in JROTC. Non-commissioned officers must pass all academic subjects and maintain a C in JROTC.

Changes in rank are made each quarter. Brown tightened the rank structure this year, limiting first-year students, for example, to a top rank of private first class.

"It was to establish a system of progression, to give them something to strivefor," he says.

The program also offers extracurricular activities such as drill teams, and voluntary summer camp programs at Fort Meade where students get a taste of barracks life. It also organizes community service projects that range from serving as ushers at school programs to helping in civil defense mock disaster drills.

The JROTC andcollege ROTC programs were established under the National Defense Act of 1916. The JROTC program has a $33 million budget that provides part of the pay for instructors and all costs of uniforms and books.

Locally, the programs will cost the county school system $162,800 in salaries and fringe benefits for the six instructors this year. TheArmy and Air Force will contribute $75,000 toward salaries and benefits, in addition to supplying uniforms and textbooks.

Congress limits JROTC to 896 programs, said Donna Marks, a specialist with the U.S.Army ROTC Cadet Command at Fort Monroe, Va.

School systems wanting to add JROTC apply to any branch of the service, but they face a waiting list. "JROTC units are real hard to come by right now," Marks says.

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