WATERLOO — Zane Slack’s senior year at West High School was supposed to start with him leading the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
He was named wing commander last May, as the program was preparing for a change in instructors. But the new instructor unexpectedly backed out over the summer, leaving the program with no one to teach the classes. Slack discovered JROTC was on hiatus when he returned to school in the fall.
“I was a little bit distressed,” said Slack. “I was really excited for this program.”
Principal Andy Miehe said the instructor’s decision in late June “really left us in a tough spot.” He noted “these positions are hired through the United States Air Force and not through our regular hiring process,” giving the school less flexibility in filling them.
Within two weeks of classes starting, though, Slack said school officials had identified another potential candidate. Ottumwa native Paul Wallace was retiring as a chief master sergeant at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota after 30 years of military service and was looking for a JROTC teaching position back in Iowa. He was hired and got West’s program restarted earlier this month when second semester began.
A little more than 70 student cadets are enrolled in the program and were fitted for their uniforms last week. Everyone in the program wears their uniform to school on Thursdays.
“We’ve already got just about everything back to normal,” said Slack. That includes drill team, which meets before school to practice. The group is planning to travel to a competition in April, and students will be doing some fundraisers in advance.
Slack noted that currently 15 students are part of drill team. “We’re hoping to get 20 kids by the end of February,” he said.
For Wallace, the position is a good fit.
“One of the things I know I like is teaching,” he said. During the past six years, he first taught airmen and then instructors in the Air Force about the KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft. “To me, this is really the dream job,” said Wallace, noting he still gets to “wear the uniform and represent the Air Force.”
He teaches aerospace science and leadership classes. Students learn about the history and science of flight as well as JROTC organization and leadership. Friday class periods are devoted to physical training.
Next fall, Wallace will be joined by instructor Bryan Carlson, a retired Air Force major who is currently teaching in a Florida program. He is a native of Brooklyn, Iowa.
Two West students who were in JROTC last year decided not to let the pause in the program stop their involvement. After learning it wouldn’t be offered in the fall, juniors Dylan Jensen and Rasion Nelsen got permission to participate in East High School’s Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
“I’d started JROTC last year and it absolutely changed my life,” said Nelsen, noting it provided him some needed structure. “I also like the teamwork and opportunities for leadership.”
Jensen appreciates the leadership aspects, as well.
“I’ve wanted to join the military ever since I joined the program,” said Jensen, when he was a freshman. “That team-building stuff made everybody feel like a family.”
Freshman Dakota Stocks just got his start in the program. “It seems interesting and a good way to learn leadership and other good life skills,” he said.
Standing 5 feet 2 inches tall, though, it was challenging to find a uniform that fit him, particularly the pants. “I feel like Captain America before he got the super soldier serum,” said Stocks, in reference to a comic book super hero.
He likes the idea of wearing the uniform as part of the program.
“It makes me feel like I’m supporting a good cause,” said Stocks. “Makes me feel tall.”