While most of her fellow 2019 WAHS graduates went off to work, college, technical training, or gap years of various stripes, Jessica Walker chose a different path—she enlisted in the Marine Corps. During a recent respite at home after having conquered the grueling 13 weeks of Basic Training on Parris Island, SC, Walker said that everything about the experience affirmed her choice.
“I visited colleges, but in the end, I didn’t think that spending that much money on something where I wasn’t completely sure what I was getting myself into was the best idea,” said Walker. “There’s a big push to go to college in this area, and we’ve got great schools in Virginia, but I don’t know if that’s what I want to do with my life right now. I want to make a difference.”
The spirit of service runs in her family—her parents are both firefighters in Albemarle county, and Walker herself holds firefighter and EMT certifications. During high school she ran cross country, competed on the Destination Imagination team, volunteered with the Crozet fire department, and helped build a tiny house. By the summer before senior year, she felt drawn to military service. Originally considering an enlistment in the Coast Guard, Walker found herself compelled by a different branch. “Whenever I walked by the Marine office there was something about them—the pride and the power of being a Marine—it just called to me.”
Marine Corps Basic Training (also called Boot Camp) is a serious test of physical, mental, and emotional endurance, and Walker embraced the challenge. “I loved every part of it,” she said. Many recruits quit or fail to advance—only 41 of the 70 women in Walker’s class made it through to graduation—and gritty determination is key to success. “You have to be able to take yourself out of your own body and understand that everything they do there is for a reason,” she said.
On the physical side, almost nothing fazed her. Gas mask training was a breeze due to her firefighter experience; on the gun range she qualified as Sharpshooter, the second-highest level; and hand-to-hand combat with pugil sticks was her forté. “That was my favorite part,” she said, laughing. “I’ll be honest, I won every single fight.” In the end, only one aspect of the training gave her pause. “I’m typically a girl who hangs out with a lot of guys and I have a lot of guy friends, so being around only females constantly was a little different for me.”
Walker gave up her long, wavy hair without looking back—“It was just easier,” she said—and she’s got more muscle now than she’s ever had. During the week break between Basic Training and her next assignment, Marine Combat Training at Camp Geiger, NC, she found herself a little stir-crazy with the relaxed pace. “I’m ready to get back into the military life,” she said. “I’m so excited for [MCT].” Her high scores on military and language aptitude tests mean she’s on track for her preferred field—intelligence training—which runs the gamut from reconnaissance to cryptography.
While her best friends saw her choice coming a mile away, and her teachers were “really supportive,” Walker is aware of misconceptions about military options after high school. “I know a lot of parents, and really people in general, who see military service only as violence, front lines, and World War II,” she said, “but there’s SO much more to it. It was definitely the best choice for me.”
Hats off and best of luck to you, Jessica!
While only a handful of students from each high school choose military enlistment upon graduation each year, and a few more enroll in ROTC programs at their future colleges, Albemarle county is recognizing an increase in student interest in these options. A 2018 survey that asked county middle schoolers about their career interests revealed that occupations that aligned with military service or civilian national defense received high marks, with 30 percent of students ranking military options as a 3, 4, or 5 on a five-point scale of interest.
In response, the county is launching a unit of the National Defense Cadet Corps (NDCC) at Monticello High School beginning with the 2020-21 school year, and plans to migrate to a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (JROTC) program in two to three years. The mission of both programs is to “expand students’ opportunities to gain the values of citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility, and a sense of accomplishment.” The NDCC will be offered as an elective, one of eight possible class blocks.
“Monticello had a JROTC program in the past but its numbers dwindled and we ended up dropping the program,” said Rick Vrhovac, MHS principal. “Since students have shown increasing interest in military and leadership type classes, we’re starting the NDCC class here.” While high school JROTC programs are funded by the federal government, they require an enrollment of about 10% of the host school population. NDCC programs do not have a minimum requirement, and Albemarle county has provided about $150,000 to fund this one.
“We’ll have to have 90 to 120 students in NDCC to be able to switch to JROTC,” said Vrhovac. “I feel that if we took the answers from recent surveys we would have enough, based on what I see in student interest, but we won’t know until we actually sit down and schedule students.” NDCC instructors are active, reserve, or retired military personnel, and Vrhovac says they’ve already had a half-dozen inquiries about the position at MHS.
Students in the NDCC will study military science, history, and national security, develop self-reliance and good citizenship, and learn about the importance of physical training and readiness. The goal of the program is “to enable cadets to better serve their country as leaders, as citizens, and in military service should they enter it.” There is no military service obligation required by the program.
As the program is currently configured, students from other county high schools would have to transfer to MHS to enroll in the NDCC, but future flexibility in class scheduling may change that. “It may be that if we have high school centers where the program goes into one of the centers, then students may be able to attend that way from any high school,” said Vrhovac. “We’ll have to see what happens.” Students in any grade may enroll in NDCC for any or all of their high school years.
Vrhovac said he’s the “baby” of a military family full of lifetime Air Force affiliations, and he took ROTC classes while in college. “It’s a leadership course, and it teaches how to lead people in critical situations, how to think through what’s best for everyone,” he said. “I think it’s something that every student could benefit from.”