Great Falls High JROTC teacher challenges cadets to succeed Pushed to give their best

Retired Lt. Col. John Corral, foreground, conducts physical training with cadets in the Great Falls High School Army JROTC program in the gym Thursday.
Retired Lt. Col. John Corral, foreground, conducts physical training with cadets in the Great Falls High School Army JROTC program in the gym Thursday.

The 18-year-old college freshman in the gray Army T-shirt and matching sweatpants runs around Spartanburg Methodist College every day.

Over hills and around corners, she runs with college wrestlers, guys in their prime who should leave a 103-pound, 5-foot-tall girl with cerebral palsy in a neighborhood far behind.

But she's still in the pack.

Ashley Cooper runs because retired Lt. Col. John Corral told her she could, just like he's tells 120 kids in Great Falls High School's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps every week.

The school's JROTC program has boomed since it became federally recognized in 2003. Today, cadets make up about one-third of the student body, meeting in two rooms at the neighboring middle school.

Cooper joined JROTC as a high school freshman. She didn't plan to stay with the program because of the physical demands. This is the girl whose doctors told her family when she was born that she would never drive a car, ride a bike or walk.

No one had ever expected anything from her because of her condition. She had never expected anything from herself.

But Corral didn't buy it.

That's the tough attitude he brought to Great Falls when he became the full-time JROTC instructor in 2003.

He started with 46 kids. He was given what was essentially a supply room to work with. Still, he saw potential.

Having served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, Corral's expectations are anything but low. He uses the word "rigor" frequently when talking about the program.

"We push them when we teach this stuff," he said.

'You can, and you will'

The class isn't like other courses. Students learn Army values such as loyalty and respect. They march and perform drills. But there's an application aspect, teaching students how to use the academic knowledge they learn in other classes.

"What does it mean, and what benefit does it have?" Corral often asks.

He also tells them they should go to college. He signs them up for the SAT. He doesn't put up with the goof-offs, the kids who think the course is a joke. He's given disruptive kids the boot.

His fight is one against ignorance, apathy and hopelessness. Sometimes, it's a struggle against a mindset instilled by parents who don't value education, he said.

Some people tell their kids that college isn't an option. You can't afford college, they say. Get a job around here.

His message is different: "You can, and you will."

Corral prods and nags, but not because he's being mean to the students. He just knows when they're not giving enough.

"What we're getting is an uphill battle," Corral said. "This has become a haven, in a sense, for these kids."

Success and support

Success has come in more than numbers. This year, four seniors have been offered full JROTC scholarships, and fellow instructor and 1st Sgt. Rick Greeno's daughter, Samantha, a 2007 graduate, is a freshman at West Point.

Teachers also have supported the program, people such as Teresa Freeman, who works with academically-challenged students.

"Not only does it make them feel like every other student, but they're involved," she said. "It gives them a chance to be a leader."

Students say the program has become the thing to do on campus.

"It's a really big part of the school," said Kelsey Gallman, a 16-year-old junior who joined the program in her freshman year. "Everything always goes back to (J)ROTC."

Freshmen Shaquetta Trapp and Jonathan Banks, both 14, enjoy the challenge the elective provides.

"You don't weasel out," Banks said. "You have to push yourself."

"You have to earn what you get," Trapp said.

In recent years, students have been encouraged to volunteer in the community. Instead of one small project each year, students assisted in after-school programs, Cub Scout meetings and other efforts.

The signs of success are when the kids ask to help, Corral said, instead of being asked.

'We care about them'

When asked what makes this program successful, Corral said support is a big factor.

"I really believe the kids buy into (the program) because they see we care about them," he said.

That's exactly what happened with Cooper, the girl who wasn't expected to do anything with her life.

"It became my life," she said of JROTC. "It really did."

If not for Corral, Cooper said, she wouldn't be running around Spartanburg Methodist today. She wants to go into public relations when she graduates and someday speak to other kids with cerebral palsy, telling them the message Corral told her and the other JROTC kids.

"I want to show them that nothing is impossible," she said. "I'm living proof of it."