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Bemidji High School: Committed to his corps

Nathan Illies, a senior at Bemidji High School and member of the Junior Reserve Office Training Corps, fixes student Tom Schwarzlander's uniform during class on Oct. 5. Students in JROTC spent the morning trying on their uniforms fresh from the seamstress. Illies is commander of the JROTC's Alpha Company. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

A moment of silence was honored before the football game at Bemidji State University's Chet Anderson Stadium on Oct. 10 as a group of young men and women in uniform walked onto the field covered in slushy snow in near freezing temperatures to present the colors.

Among that group was Bemidji High School senior Nathan Illies, a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

"I remember feeling really cold and thinking to myself, 'Everyone is watching me.' My heart was vibrating with excitement," Illies said.

JROTC is a high school program for students to learn self-discipline, proper appearance, communication, drills, ceremonies and how to exceed in their academics.

JROTC members start their day with the pledge of allegiance and the cadet creed:

"I am an Army JROTC cadet...I am loyal and patriotic. I am the future of the United States of America. I do not lie, cheat, or steal and will always be accountable for my actions and deeds..."

JROTC is a class students can take, just like math or band. Throughout the week, students do a range of different activities, including physical fitness, drills, volunteering and leadership training.

"It's a student-led program," said JROTC instructor Col. Doug Trenda. "We put a lot back on the kids. If they have a question about their uniforms, for example, I say, 'Go ask your squad leader.'"

Illies, who has been a member of JROTC for four years, was recently awarded a full ride scholarship to St. John's University through its ROTC program. The scholarship not only pays for his tuition, it also gives him a monthly stipend for additional expenses.

But there's a catch. The scholarship requires Illies to complete four years of college, which includes officer training through ROTC. After college, he must fulfill four years of activity military duty in the service and four additional years of "ready reserve" duty.

But this is exactly what Illies wants. At 17 years old, Illies says he knows he wants a career in the military.

"It's a great plan for me right now. I can't imagine doing anything else. I've found my niche, my place," Illies said.

So, what if Illies is like so many other students who decide half-way through college their interests have changed?

"ROTC gives me a one-year panic button that I can push, which stops the scholarship," Illies said. "After that I would have to pay them back for all the schooling if I don't want to go through with it."

When Illies started in JROTC as a high school freshman, he immediately joined the color guard, an extra-curricular group assigned with JROTC.

"I went from trying to get to know 150 other students in JROTC to a small group of eight of us," Illies said. "I met most of my friends in this group."

Through color guard and honor guard, Illies has presented at sporting events and ceremonies.

According to Trenda, everyone in JROTIC is treated as an equal. There are no cliques because each student is assigned to a squad, he said. Each squad is held accountable for members' behavior and attendance.

Despite its underlying team-work-driven ethics, Illies still finds some students misunderstand what the group is about.

"Some kids in High School think it's just for the rejects. It's not so," said Illies. "We have a wide range of students from jocks to band students involved. I have friends now that I never would've had if I wasn't involved in it."

While the program has been a strong point in his high school career, Illies said it has not come without challenges.

"Peer leadership is challenging," Illies said. "To earn the respect from those your age is hard, especially if you're in charge of quieting down a class."

His seriousness in JROTC is apparent, but Illies said he can be just as much a goofball.

"I get that from my older sister," he said.

Illies said he looks forward to today's Veterans Day ceremony at J.W. Smith Elementary School, where he will participate with JROTC color guard in the ceremony.

According to Illies, his older sister shared with him these three words for his future after high school: Don't screw up.

He doesn't intend to.