Francis Lewis JROTC departs for Normandy

By Kelsey Durham

Nineteen members of the storied Junior ROTC program at Francis Lewis High School embarked on the trip of a lifetime this week as they headed to Europe to participate in the anniversary celebration of D-Day, the same week that City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) launched a fight to remove the programs from schools.

The group of students and their leaders left from their Fresh Meadows school Tuesday for the weeklong trip to Normandy, France, where they will take part in several activities to mark the 70th anniversary of Allied troops storming Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, a historic event that eventually led to the end of World War II.

The JROTC was invited to what will be the 20-year-old program’s first international trip in January 2013 by the committee planning the celebration, which asked the group to join and perform during one of the day’s ceremonies.

“They wanted JROTC programs that had a good reputation, and Francis Lewis has one of the best,” said Al Lahood, senior U.S. Army instructor of the JROTC. “We have a national reputation as one of the largest, if not the largest, ROTC battalions in the country. These kids aren’t just representing Francis Lewis but New York and America as well.”

In comments earlier this week, Dromm said he has a “philosophical problem” with JROTC programs because he believes they are recruiting young students for a war machine, but those involved in the program at Francis Lewis said there is a different meaning behind it. Lahood said the program’s mission is to develop good citizens and people who contribute to the greater good.

He also said the JROTC students frequently do very well in athletic and academic competitions.

Once the idea for this month’s trip was approved by the administration, Lahood began selecting students from the more than 900 involved in the program and eventually chose the 19 sophomores, juniors and seniors he wanted to take with him to represent the school during the ceremonies.

He said the students were so excited and dedicated to the trip that the four seniors who were chosen agreed to go despite having to miss one of the most important events of their high school careers: the prom.

While abroad, the students have a packed schedule of sightseeing and activities to help them take in the culture and history of the place they will be staying for a week.

The group was set to tour the village of Honfleur near the beaches of Normandy before the anniversary ceremonies began Thursday, when Lahood said the students would start by performing in a musical salute at the American cemetery before taking part in what he called “the real big event” the next day.

“June 6 is when we’ll march in the liberation parade” Lahood said, “and from what I hear there will be quite a few heads of state there.”

Lahood said the students worked hard to practice their routine in time to perfect it for their performance this week while also helping to raise the nearly $70,000 the school needed to send them on the trip. Through fund-raising events and donations from community members and organizations, Lahood said the program was able to gather all the money in the nick of time.

The 19 students will each be keeping a journal of their day-to-day experiences while in France and will then put together a scrapbook of memories from their trip. Lahood said he knows the trip will be one of the best opportunities the students will ever have, but more than anything he hopes they see it as a learning experience.

“What I hope they take away from it is a sense of the selflessness that American service members have,” he said. “This experience will help them see that it’s not just talk and that there are people out there who do things for others even though it costs them dearly. These are the greatest kids you could possibly hope to have and I know they’re all going to grow up and do wonderful things for their community and their country.”

Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at kdurham@cnglocal.com.