One last salute

Past, present JROTC students send off commander with tears, smiles
Dec. 20, 2013 @ 11:04 PM

There was a lot more laughing, crying and hugging in formation for the Lee County High School Army JROTC program Friday morning than usual.

That’s because the members of the schools junior reserve officers’ training corps had formed up into three companies, alongside a fourth company of former JROTC students, to conduct a surprise sendoff for Lt. Col. William Oriet, the group’s commander who is retiring at the end of this semester.

Oriet said he had no idea this was coming and proclaimed himself “sandbagged” by the tricky cadets and his fellow instructor, Sgt. First Class Patrick O’Kelley, who all helped organize the ceremony and later presented Oriet with a plaque and photo collage. The students skipped class to line up at the school’s football field, and Oriet said he didn’t entirely figure it out until the moment he saw them there, on what he thought was a trip with O’Kelley to track down the missing kids.

“I wanted to just kind of fade out, like MacArthur,” Oriet said afterward, referring to a famous line from a speech by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “But they got me.”

Oriet’s past and present students were not about to just let him fade away, though. About two dozen alumni came back, led by Sgt. John Hall, who was previously a JROTC instructor at the school. Some were in plain clothes, others were in full Army or Navy uniforms. One of them was Jonathan Pemberton, who graduated last year and is now a combat medic who wears the tan beret of the U.S. Army Rangers.

His grandmother, Patricia Pemberton, a retired teacher who was a member of the faculty with Oriet at Lee Senior, was at the ceremony. She said her grandson was allowed to leave his unit a day early to come to the retirement ceremony because he wanted to show his gratitude in person.

“They will do anything and everything [Oriet] asks of them,” Pemberton said. “He’s just a wonderful man.”

The current JROTC battalion commander, senior Morgan Long, said as much in a speech he read to Oriet in front of the assembled crowd moments after the companies had finished marching in front of the lieutenant colonel, saluting as the school’s marching band played in the background.

“You’ve had such an impact on our lives,” Long told his retiring instructor. Oriet later went down the line of students, saluting and shaking hands with each company commander. Unable to use their hands because they were standing rigidly at attention, several students tried to blink away the tears running down their faces.

Oriet, a Montana native who spent much of his active duty career with the 5th Special Forces group, said he’s typically a man of few words. But he was nonetheless able to come up with some parting words on the spot Friday.

“I’m happy you’re at this point in your lives where you’re ready to have success,” he told them. “That’s what this program is about.”

Kelsi and Kendall Alston, two former cadets who met each other in JROTC and are now in the Army, married and stationed together in Georgia at Fort Benning, came back for the ceremony.

Kelsi, a first lieutenant (class of ’08), and Kendall, a staff sergeant (class of ’06), said Oriet was a great instructor who had them more prepared than most of their peers when they first joined the Army. However, they said, they learned more in JROTC about life in general than about the military, and that that’s the whole point of the program.

“It’s not about the Army as much as it is just about learning discipline, getting some structure,” said Kendall Alston, who was commander of the JROTC Raider team back in the day.

Addressing them and everyone else, Oriet said the ceremony was fantastic — even though he would’ve preferred a more low-key slide into retirement.

“I’m proud of you, and I love you all,” he said.