NORTH FORT HOOD — Across the dusty, hill-strewn ranges of Fort Hood, high school students are learning lessons of leadership.

The Phantom Warrior Junior Cadet Leadership Challenge this week attracted 173 high school Junior ROTC cadets from 10 high schools.

They are staying in tents at North Fort Hood and dining together, marching in formation and learning skills, such as orienteering, drown proofing and first aid, and participating in a low ropes challenge and rappelling.

The five-day course began Monday.

With the high school cadets huddled around him Tuesday, retired Lt. Col. George Matthews, senior JROTC instructor at Shoemaker High School, told students the land navigation challenge in front of them was all about leading. He also said it was about safety and about people.

“How can it be all about all of those things?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s what you have to figure out.”

Later, after almost two hours of hiking through hills and weeds to find six points using a map, cadet groups began trickling back to turn in their completed forms.

“This entire week is about teamwork, motivation and leadership,” Matthews said. “It also gives them opportunities to bond in a short time frame.”

Cadets from the four Killeen Independent School District high schools and Copperas Cove High School joined students from Waco, Longview, Lubbock, Tyler and Malvern, Ark.

Instructors divided the students into nine-member squads representing multiple schools. Several students said they were surprised how quickly they bonded with peers they had never met.

“It’s good for me,” said Killeen High School junior Eddie Ceballos. “It helps me learn leadership and make friends. As a group we come together and we learn together. It gives us pride in JROTC.”

Ceballos and Ellison High School junior Daniel Washington said they attended the leadership challenge last year and were excited to get a second dose.

“They chose the best cadets from the schools to build leadership skills in the hot Texas sun,” said Washington, taking a break after completing the orienteering challenge. It’s fun for us and it makes us feel like actual soldiers.”

“We see who has the heart for leadership,” said Copperas Cove High School junior Truman Kilpatrick, pointing out that the cadets switch out leadership roles through the week. “Leaders have to know how to follow.”

Retired Lt. Col. Joseph Merlo, Ellison High School senior instructor, walked along the trail as cadet squads fanned out to find points using a map and were given boundaries and landmarks.

“They’re learning to solve problems,” he said. “They’re working together and negotiating.”

Ceballos and Cove High junior Elizabeth Bardwell each led their groups successfully through the navigation challenge. Both said they mapped out a circular route through the course to achieve each point.

“That was so fun,” Bardwell said. “The challenges were getting around (the obstacles) and one of the points didn’t exist.”

Cadets continue training and activities today and Thursday and conduct a graduation ceremony Friday.

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