Joe Malinconico Paterson Press
PATERSON — Three mornings a week, 17-year-old Angel Ventura arrives at Eastside High School at 6:45 a.m., 90 minutes before students are required to report for classes. The senior also stays after school an extra 90 minutes.
Such are the demands of being a company commander in Eastside’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps as well as a member of the program’s Drill Team, Color Guard and Raiders advanced physical training group.
“I love it,” Ventura said. “I’m following my dream,” added the young man who plans to enlist in the United States Marines after he graduates from high school next year.
The entire Eastside JROTC community — 325 students and three faculty members — achieved its dream earlier this year when the United States Army Cadet Command gave the Paterson program “elite” status as a result of its three-year accreditation review.
Only about 1% of the Army’s high school JROTC programs get the “elite” designation, said Maj. Luis Eduardo Barraza, chairman of the program at Eastside. Three years ago, the unit — known as the Mighty Ghost Battalion — fell one point short of the elite ranking, and had to settle for a highly proficient designation, Barraza said. In the previous evaluation, the group only made lower proficient.
Barraza and his staff — Command Sergeant Major Ricardo Garcia and Sergeant First Class Mauricio Branwell — begin recruiting JROTC participants when the students are in eighth grade. Normally, he said about 120 sign up as freshmen, with the goal of them completing four years in the program.
But not everybody makes it. Some quit because of the rigors demanded of them. Others are asked to leave the program because they don’t meet the standards.
“They must exhibit self-discipline and respect for constituted authority (All JROTC Instructors, School Administers, Classroom teachers & JROTC Cadet leadership) through observance of laws, rules, and regulations; by prompt and regular attendance at instruction and in their general demeanor,” reads the contract the students must sign.
By sophomore year, usually about 75 students of the 120 who started as ninth graders remain in the program, Barraza said.
For the most part, JROTC participants take the same academic classes as do other students at Eastside. The one exception being a leadership class required of the JROTC youths.
Four days per week, the JROTC students wear regular school clothes along with everyone else. But on Wednesdays, they must leave their homes in their full dress Army uniforms and wear them until they return home.
Battalion Commander Wendy Arebalo, the highest ranking member in the program, said seeing other Paterson teens in their military uniforms was one of the things that attracted her to the program.
“That motivated me,” said Arebalo, 17, adding that she especially likes showcasing the numerous medals and ribbons she has earned in JROTC.
The program’s instructors are all retired Army officers. Barraza, for example, served 20 years including two tours of combat duty – 14 months in Iraq and 18 months in Afghanistan. Barraza grew up in Passaic, the son of Colombian immigrants who struggled financially. He said he saw enlisting in the Army as an economic opportunity.
“I wanted change, I wanted to live better,” he said. “I wanted to find a better way for my future kids.”
Barraza said his background has helped him relate with the Paterson students.
“Our mission is to transform these kids into leaders of our community,” Barraza said. “I’m here because of passion,” he added.
Between 15% and 20% of the Eastside JROTC students end up enlisting in the military, Barraza said.
Saul Dicent, 17, a Sergeant Major in the program, said many cadets who don’t plan to pursue military careers will be heading to college or going into public safety and law enforcement careers.
“They all have a plan,” Dicent said. “That’s what JROTC teaches us – to have a plan.”
Branwell has been one of the Eastside JROTC instructors for more than 18 years. He grew up in the notorious Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in the 1970s and joined the Army after high school.
Branwell attributed the recent “elite” evaluation ranking to Barraza’s no-nonsense approach to sticking to the program’s standards, even grooming requirements that say sideburns can’t extend below cadets’ earlobes and hair can’t touch the top of shirt collars.
In the past, he said, some students participated in JROTC without a firm commitment to the program’s principles. “Now the kids we have all really want to be here,” Branwell said.