A local bastion of military muster is shedding its hard-nosed stigma.
Taylor Picone knows firsthand how everything tied to the military and the War on Terror involves quotas and costs—even if military-minded souls call such numbers “missions.” The 19-year-old West Chester resident once came within a whisker of starting an Army JROTC program at Unionville High School. But when he fell 15 students short a few years back, he enrolled at Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne instead. “Once here, your past is irrelevant,” says Gerard Tertychny, a professor of military science there and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Special Forces.
With Picone, the past helps explain his motivation to become a military man—even in the face of ongoing conflict overseas. Picone’s grandfather served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. An uncle was in the U.S. Navy for 12 years. His father, Pat, was in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam. And Taylor spent time this summer with the West Chester unit of the National Guard.
To start a JROTC program, a school needs to attract 10 percent of its student population. At Unionville, that would’ve been 120 students. With the support of the school’s principal, Picone held recruiting meetings, handed out literature, documented sign-ins and unveiled curriculum, fitness and drilling requirements. He figured Unionville’s “hodge-podge” demographics offered the perfect mix to get a JROTC off the ground. But in the end, he attracted 105 students.
“It was a much more drawn-out process than I thought it’d be,” he says, explaining how schools are wait-listed while they recruit students, acquire funding and hire and train staff. “The delay killed it.”
By then, the only ones carrying the torch—the principal included—left. “In a perfect world, I would’ve had a million years to start [a JROTC], but I had to establish my own future and go after what I wanted,” says Picone. “So it was best not to stay. At Valley Forge, I found exactly what I was looking for.”
Valley Forge Military Academy dates back to 1928, the junior college to 1935. On its 120-acre campus, there are 350 cadets in grades seven through 12 (plus a post-grad class); the two-year college enrolls, on average, 225 students annually, including women for the first time last year. In military matters, the academy and college may be distinct, but both share two misconceptions—that Valley Forge is for those with disciplinary problems and, worse, that they’re a military recruiting ground. Neither, Picone says, is true. Rather, the primary goal is to send graduates on to selective four-year universities.
“We do that very well, and just a very small percentage go into the military or are discipline problems,” says Picone, who can name friends who finished public school, then fell flat on their faces. “I’ve never seen that at Valley Forge.”
While academy students are required to participate in the U.S. Army-sponsored JROTC—the only such program on the Main Line—none have a military service commitment. Only 4 percent of academy students ever go on to military careers (35 percent of the college cadets do), according to VFMA&C. In academy graduating classes that average 75 cadets, less than a handful continue onto the school’s junior college as Picone has. The only service requirement at VFMA&C comes with the two-year Early Commissioning Program, which began at the military junior colleges in 1966 in response to the buildup to the Vietnam War.
“Our mission in Army JROTC is to motivate young Americans to become better citizens,” says Lt. Col. Ramon Ramos, who oversees the program. “We do not encourage or attempt to put them in the military. The senior program is where the recruiting and training for future commissioned officers takes place.”
A graduate of Virginia Military Institute and a Desert Storm veteran living in Havertown, Tertychny runs the senior program. And while he understands the harsher stereotypes, he sees JROTC as “just like scouting.”
VALLEY FORGE Military College is one of 272 institutions nationwide with an Army ROTC presence on campus. Others in the region are Temple, Drexel and Widener universities. Saint Joseph’s University has Air Force ROTC; Villanova has Navy ROTC.
Nationally, VFMC offers one of just five junior college Army ROTCs, though it also hosts cadets from smaller partnership schools, including Eastern, Cabrini and Rosemont. The Early Commissioning Program—which allows interested individuals to become commissioned as a second lieutenant with an associate’s degree in two years rather than four—isn’t available to partnership students. However, they do participate in daily physical training, ROTC class, hands-on leadership labs and once-a-month training at Fort Dix.
The U.S. Army has three commissioning sources. West Point commissions roughly 1,000 second lieutenants a year; from the enlisted ranks, Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Ga., does the same. Army ROTCs at VFMC’s and elsewhere produce about 4,000 officers.
Tertychny is charged with supplying 23 officers a year through his Early Commissioning Program. “The mission is to commission lieutenants for the Army,” he says. “It’s cut and dry. The Army exists to fight wars, and ROTC exists to produce young leadership for it. We don’t sugarcoat it.”
Tertychny interviewed 60 incoming candidates for ECP spots before this academic year. Half (including two women) began the semester. There are now four females in the program. Two years ago, 29 men graduated as commissioned second lieutenants. Last May, 22 did. “We feel, if we can get 30, we can finish with 23 two years later,” he says.
The other 200 college cadets (last year, 10 were women; this year another eight enrolled) are required to complete 100- and 200-level ROTC Military Science and Leadership courses for graduation but don’t commit to a service obligation. If, after two years, they elect to continue ROTC involvement on another campus, they may.
“We try to be role models, change behaviors and put the tough military values and skills out there,” says Tertychny, who’s been at VFMC two years and figures to remain through the summer of 2009. “It’s more about guiding behavior to be successful anywhere, in whatever they do. It’s a grounding and a foundation.”
Of course, there are financial benefits for contracted cadets. They earn $450 a month their first year at VFMC and $500 a month the second year. If they’re ECPs, VFMC kicks in at least $7,000 for room and board (others are on scholarship or have financial aid). VFMC tuition, room and board costs $33,276 a year.
For ECP cadets, after two years, their eight-year service obligation begins with a reserves component—usually Army Reserves or Army National Guard—while they finish their degree. Officers are considered non-deployable until they’ve finished their bachelor’s degree, a requirement for promotion to captain.
“The short-term loss [of active officers] is more of a long-term gain,” Tertychny explains. “When guys are promoted, they tend to stay in the Army longer.”
Taylor Picone, 19, is in his fifth year at Valley Forge and his second in the ECP. He’s hoping he’ll be commissioned next spring so he can fulfill his goal. He’d like to spend his life in the military. “I was never any good at soccer or anything, so this is my niche,” he says.
Picone’s mother, Patricia, remains skeptical. “I’ve spent five years in military school, so what did she think would happen?” her son says. “She doesn’t not support it, but it’s hard for her. Moms never completely understand.”
In Picone’s case, what began as a search for smaller classes and better day-to-day structure evolved into training in the U.S. political system and managing finances—a well-rounded education with an emphasis on becoming a more knowledgeable citizen. He’s delivered the same message in selling the school for the last four years as a campus tour guide.
In the ECP interviews Tertychny conducts, his No. 1 question is: Why do you want to be a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army? Most, he says, want to help their country in a time of need. One said he was tired of sitting on the bench; he wanted to be in the game.
“For 17- or 18-year-old kids to come here knowing what’s going on and knowing they want to be part of it—and [the war in Iraq] isn’t going away—it’s impressive, really,” says Tertychny.
A 20-year military man, Tertychny is the son of a sailor and a native of Bowie, Md., outside Annapolis. He says preparation hasn’t changed as a result of—or in reaction to—the war in Iraq. Training remains standard combat skills in marksmanship, land navigation, fitness, small-unit tactics, leadership and planning.
What has changed is a more defined, tiered training program called the Basic Officer Leadership Course. It begins with pre-commissioning training, is followed by a six-week phase of basic combat skills training, and continues with 12-15 weeks of specialty training. All phases incorporate lessons learned from—and scenarios based on—the situations leaders are finding in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet despite the reality, war isn’t a common topic among VFMC cadets, which amazes Picone.
“We’ll see what the Army needs,” he says. “And go where it sends us.”