A trip to the Michigan Regulation Drill Team Championships saw the JROTC team from Union High School return to Grand Rapids with a little heavier load.

A trunk full of trophies will do that!

All told the Union Junior Officers’ Training Corps squad took two firsts and two seconds in four events and finished second overall in the state out of a total of 20 teams. The firsts were in Color Guard and Armed Platoon and the seconds were in Platoon Inspection and First-Year Marching Squad.

For Union’s Ron Voisinet, a JROTC instructor and First Sergeant, it was a dream come true.

“This is just a special, special group of scholars that works hard and does everything asked of them without complaint,” he said. “They practice every day, study as a group, and do things on weekends. To see them succeed in this way this weekend was pretty amazing.”

Voisinet noted that Union was competing with some of the nation’s best teams at the event, held at Cass Technical High School.

“It was all Michigan high schools,” he said. “Schools from all over the state who are known to be among the best in the country and who regularly compete successfully at Nationals. But we held our own. More than held our own.”

The 23 Union Cadets who attended the Michigan Regulation Drill Team Championships included 15 girls and eight boys, something Voisinet said was unusual at the recent event.

Among the 15 girls was junior Sarely Rodriguez, one of four girls on a Union Color Guard Squad that took first place.

She joined the JROTC program last year and wasn’t all in at the time she admitted.

But now?

“I cannot imagine life without JROTC and especially the Color Guard,” she said with a laugh. “The girls in the Color Guard have gotten really close.”

As Color Guard commander and a Major in the Union JROTC, Rodriguez said she was a little nervous when she and her teammates took the floor to be evaluated.

“When we were done, I was shaking and out of breath,” she said. “But I’m so proud of us. We’ve really grown as a team.”

Rosalinda Rios, junior, the Drill team commander and a Sergeant Major said the same.

“Oh, at first Cass was overwhelming,” she said. “And the wins were unexpected. But it was so good to go down there and compete against some of the best and do so well. JROTC is more than I thought it would be. I’m so glad I joined.”

Neither Rodriguez nor Rios said they have any firm plans to join the military after graduation, and Voisinet said that’s fine by him as the biggest focus right now in JROTC is academics.

Indeed, the mission of JROTC at all three high schools is to motivate young people to be better citizens with education seen as critical to that goal.

As for the recent accolades for his squad, he beamed like a proud parent as he described their performances.

“Even my experienced Cadets were a little wide-eyed when we walked in (to Cass),” he said. “But after winning state runner-up, they’re not wide-eyed anymore. They’re Midwest known now, that’s for sure.”

Voisinet also gave a special shoutout to Walter Durkee American Legion Post 311 which he said has adopted Union’s JROTC team, including paying for some of the team’s hotel stay and even a supper trip to Golden Corral!

Union’s JROTC program is one of just three west of Lansing, and all three of them are at Grand Rapids Public Schools: Innovation Central, Ottawa Hills and Union high schools.

Major Robert Ware heads things up at Union.

A 1979 Union graduate, Ware did four years of JROTC as a high school student and considers it a life-changing experience. He returned to Union in 2006 as an instructor and continues to be gratified by the many ways in which JROTC changes lives in all three GRPS high schools.

“One of our strong points,” he said, “is that we are a mentorship program. We will mentor the kids, especially if they stay with us for all four years but even if they don’t. It’s a thrill to watch an unsure 14-year-old come in and see a confident young man or woman leave when they graduate. To watch a student grow over their high school career and to think, well you know I had a little hand in that, it’s powerful.”

ROTC was established nationwide in 1916 to bring military skills to high school students. And GRPS records show that Central High School’s program goes all the way back to 1916 with Union close behind with a program starting in 1921.

JROTC in Grand Rapids stayed about basic military skills all the way up to about the 1980s and then began to change its focus as students, parents and the military realized that some tweaks were needed.

The curriculum nationwide, and in Grand Rapids, is intended to teach critical thinking skills, build a capacity for lifelong learning, help students become better communicators, take responsibility for their actions, and more.

In short, Voisinet said, it reinforces and repeats the same qualities and characteristics GRPS builds its K-12 foundation upon.

Union High School principal Aaron Roussey sees the ways in which JROTC benefits his building.

“As a teacher here (at Union),” he said, “I was aware of JROTC, had students in the program, but I don’t think I realized the direct impact it has on the climate and the culture of our schools. It’s been a real positive for Union High School.”

Each GRPS school that offers JROTC has two instructors and follows a standardized curriculum which includes coursework in leadership, civics, geography and global awareness, health and wellness, language arts, life skills and U.S. history.

All three JROTC programs also get out and about in the community, doing a variety of volunteer projects. In addition to volunteer opportunities in the community, all three JROTC programs also connect with organizations like the Grand Rapids Police Department and the Grand Rapids Fire Department, learning about the work done by such organizations and even considering public service as a possible career path.