LEWISTON — A group of Lewiston High School students dressed in Air Force blues stood at attention in the gym Tuesday, waiting for the next command.

“Present arms!” barked Cadet Second Lt. Corey Harlow, 15.

The cadets saluted.

“Order arms!” Harlow drilled. “Parade, rest.”

The group did a right face, left face, about face and then marched, all the while being observed by dignitaries and officers from Brewer conducting an inspection.

The school’s Air Force Junior ROTC program celebrated its 25th anniversary Tuesday with drills, special guests, speeches and a big cake.

Maine’s first high school ROTC program was established at Lewiston High School in 1988-89. Brewer High School soon followed Lewiston’s lead. They are the only two programs in the state.

Since then, hundreds of lives have been touched, said acting High School Principal Paul Amnott.

The objective isn’t to recruit students to the military, Amnott said, but to teach them about the military, encourage integrity, time management and leadership skills.

Students learn the nuts and bolts of flying, flight history and space exploration from retired U.S. Air Force personnel.

“It’s served a lot of students well,” Amnott said. “It’s helped turn some kids around.”

Harlow, who introduced himself as the public affairs officer for the unit, said he’s an example.

As a freshman last year, “I got a little sidetracked,” he said. He did too much socializing.

A friend told him he should join Junior ROTC. He did. And he’s changed.

“My grades are better,” he said. “I’m a better leader. The integrity I have is a lot better. The camaraderie I have with other cadets is amazing.”

Being part of a group that works hard in school and wants to serve changes you, he said. “It’s a very ambitious environment.”

Jonathan Gilchrist, 17, said being a cadet has allowed him to gain leadership and management skills. After graduation, he plans to enlist in the Air Force.

Bernadette Racine, 16, who joined as a freshman, plans to go to college and then become a Marine. “I feel a great sense of pride when I see someone in uniform,” she said.

The program suffered a tragedy in 2006 when three Lewiston ROTC cadets, Nicholas Babcock, Teisha Loesberg and Shannon Fortier, along with the 24-year-old civilian pilot, were killed when the single-engine plane they were in crashed into a mountain in Newry.

Since then policies have changed. The Lewiston School Committee must approve all field trips that involve transportation by someone other than a Lewiston public school employee. Lewiston cadets now fly on military aircraft, said the head instructor, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Welborn.

The program now has 102 cadets, Welborn said. Most attend Lewiston High School; 35 are from Edward Little, Oak Hill, Leavitt and Lisbon high schools.

The overall goal is to help students become good citizens, Welborn said. He fields requests “all the time” for his cadets to perform color guard flag presentations at public events, from hockey and football games to concerts and graduations.

A big part of how the program helps students is direction and belonging, he said. “When students come in the door they are part of a family, part of a group they can identify with.”

In class Tuesday, Master Sgt. Tony Campbell, who teaches at Air Force Junior ROTC at Brewer High School, told students how being a cadet helped him graduate from college sooner, be a better member of the Air Force, assume leadership duties and get promoted quicker. “This is where it started.”

Whether they go to work, college or join the military after they graduate, “you learn so much here,” he said. “It’s so much fun. It’s your corps. We are here to guide you along.”

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