The 55-foot descent from the Fort Hood rappel tower was the easy part.
It was the inching back to the edge of the platform while relying on a rope and a couple of trainers that tried the limits of faith and good sense that made up the challenge.
Ending a week of Junior Cadet Leadership Challenge in exhilarating fashion, the 173 high school cadets who chose to do it, rappelled down the tower Thursday with the help of soldier trainers and their own Junior ROTC instructors.
The students from 10 high schools who completed the weeklong course received certificates in a graduation ceremony Friday at Howze Auditorium.
“It was intimidating looking up,” said Jesus Tafoya, a junior from Estacado High School in Lubbock. “The hardest part is leaning off. I started walking down and halfway down I got comfortable.”
The cadets began on a much smaller training tower, where they learned the proper commands and how to work the rope to scale the side of the wall safely.
“It was frightening at first,” said Alexis Mederos, a Killeen High School junior. “Halfway down I faced my fears. This week has been about learning to face fears and about teamwork.”
The high school cadets lived in tents, rising at 5 in the morning and taking part in physical challenges throughout the day, ending at 10 at night. They took part in the leadership reaction course June 18 and a land navigation challenge the day before.
“You can’t accomplish a task without teamwork,” Mederos said. “You have to rely on your team.”
“It was a little scary going off the edge,” said Julia Orellana, an Ellison High School junior. “This week has been a lot of training to help us through life. We’ve learned that to lead you have to know how to follow.”
“It was scary going down,” agreed Raymond Triggs, an Ellison High School junior. “I found my sweet spot and it was fun. I was able to get comfortable. You get over your fear of heights or of falling.”
Retired Lt. Col. John Stanley, lead JROTC instructor at Killeen High School and the camp director, said the Phantom Warrior Junior Cadet Leadership Challenge works because of partners.
“It’s a combination of support from Fort Hood — all of its organizations, as well as KISD and CCISD,” he said, noting that the Killeen school district provides transportation and other logistics.
The payoff is Junior ROTC battalions in four Killeen Independent School District schools, Copperas Cove High School and the five visiting schools get high-level leaders back on their campuses.
Leadership, confidence and teamwork are what Stanley called “the big three,” which are the backbone of JROTC and the camp experience. “They go back to their battalions and become leaders. We depend on them to lead.”
Individual students could see the benefits in their own lives, too.
“It’s hot and it’s a change in my routine,” said Saul Rodriguez, a Lubbock Estacado High School junior. “We wake up early. At home, I’m usually lazy, so this is good for me. It’s been rough, but good.”
On the third day of camp, nine-student squads competed at Fort Hood’s Leadership Reaction Course on a series of challenges that required moving equipment and people across obstacles.
On one difficult assignment, a squad managed to successfully move planks and a wheelbarrow across a water hazard on a wood bridge that traversed a series of concrete platforms in record time.
Copperas Cove High School sophomore Elizabeth Sparkman was a key leader in the squad that successfully moved equipment across the bridge.
She said the group members assessed the challenge and the tools and used common sense to build a bridge as sturdy as possible and to place personnel to give the most balance.
“We put two instead of one to make it sturdy,” she said, explaining the group used two planks to make a wider bridge across the water. “We also used two to balance.” The group decided two cadets should work to steady the wheelbarrow and two other students helped balance the people pushing it.
“We were motivated to be the first to do it,” she said. “We used common sense.”
“We worked well today and we didn’t get bummed out,” Sparkman said, noting that when the team did stumble, they regrouped and tried again.
“Today we’re learning to work in teams,” said Shoemaker High School senior Ashontaye Gadson. “Everyone gave their opinions,” she said, explaining that the group had to accumulate a variety of ideas and make choices.
“It built good teamwork and good listening skills,” she said. “We all had to listen to other ideas. We did OK. It would have been nice to accomplish more, but we did well as a team.”
She said the week does more than build skills. It builds family.
“I like having different activities and I like that I’m building a new family,” she said, “a family throughout Killeen and throughout Texas.”