Retired 1st Sgt. Richard Gogarty has led the Army Junior ROTC program at Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows since his current cadets were in diapers.
For the last 18 years, Gogarty has conducted a program that has won so many military and academic titles with his help that he has lost count of exactly how many.
His office shows it.
Pictures of alumni from just short of two decades lie under the protective glass on Gogarty’s desk, while trophies and group pictures marking their most significant accomplishments line the walls.
The phone in the JROTC office rings non-stop and the foot traffic is reminiscent of the Long Island Expressway at rush hour.
Gogarty said when the never-ending stream of visitors comes in, he is most often asked why their JROTC is so successful.
The school’s program is the largest of Reserve Officer’s Training Corps 1,725 high school chapters, which is evident by the constant activity from Room 219, the Francis Lewis JROTC headquarters.
Since its infancy, the program has grown from 155 to 741 students. They join for many different reasons.
“I don’t believe in the connotation of ‘bad kids,’” Gogarty said. “We have the gamut here. Some students are here because their parents think they need more structure and some are straight-A students that were too shy to look up from their toes, but after getting to know them you realize you’ve underestimated them. There are no black sheep here and I think the students like that.”
Gogarty said he thinks the program is so successful because students like the idea of being part of a group that allows them to travel, and most of all learn critical leadership skills that will carry with them throughout their lives.
Ahlyjus McPherson, the cadet lieutenant colonel on Gogarty’s team, is a senior who said that he joined in ninth grade mostly to make his parents happy. He will study pre-med at Stony Brook University in the fall.
“They had heard so much about the leadership skills and scholarship opportunities,” he said, “although now I spend most of my time here and can’t imagine what high school would have been like without it. I spend at least three school periods here a day even though I don’t have to.”
McPherson is only 18 years old, but shows a maturity of manners and concentration that he credits to the life lessons gained through the JROTC program.
McPherson said that he and his peers constantly discuss time-management skills to compare how they deal with balancing homework, JROTC and socializing.
He also said that Gogarty is always on-hand for any type of life advice, as well.
“We perform a lot of community service,” he said. “Our choir team visits nursing homes frequently and we just got finished working with assistance dogs. Meeting people in our community is a huge part of JROTC.”
Gogarty believes that by assigning at least 50 community services projects per year, he is teaching the students to be active participants in both their lives and the lives of others, which he sees as the most integral part of the program that changes their perspectives.
A more recent project started at the school and ended in the Middle East.
“We’ve opened up a girl’s school in Afghanistan,” Gogarty said. “We send them school supplies constantly, and they finally have a building to learn in. Before they were just meeting in the middle of town.”
Gogarty said that he has some of his alumni working over there and corresponds with them regularly.
He thinks that this project in particular conveys acceptance and social responsibility to his current students.
“Of course they have great discipline,” Gogarty said. “But learning these leadership skills means that they leave here with the social experiences of mid-level managers.”
Each of his teams is made up of executive officers and captains. They also divide their responsibilities into the categories of administration, security, logistics and special projects.
Brittney Boyce, another senior in the program, said that she thinks the speaking and leadership skills learned through JROTC are priceless.
“In class we’re not really encouraged to speak so clearly,” Boyce said with steady eye contact. “But through all the drill practices we learn to think before we speak and be respectful, and I know I’ll use all those skills in college.”
Boyce said that she thinks fondly of the program because she has gained a tremendous amount of confidence, has made so many friends, and has traveled with the team to Florida, Kentucky, Georgia and Maryland, where she has decided to go to college.
“I never would have gone to all those places,” Boyce said with a smile.
The JROTC program has a reputation around Francis Lewis High School for giving the opportunity of travel to students who otherwise never would have been able to.
Both Boyce and McPherson believe that another skill acquired through the program comes from having to speak in front of a panel of seven people before they can receive a rank promotion.
“Sgt. Gogarty preps us, but we eventually have to present ourselves and prove a case of why we deserve a promotion in front of all the officers in the program,” Boyce said. “We perform those sort of tasks pretty often so it gets easier with time.”
Gogarty adds that most adults do not even deal with public speaking or social pressures like that.
The program is divided into an armed drill team, an unarmed drill team, a patriot guard and a patriot pride team.
The participants also boast about their choir, raider team and academic team.
“More than anything, I am proud of the effort that the kids put in the seven teams,” he said. “After being in the program they don’t even know how to give less than 100 percent.”
The biggest accomplishment this year was the Raider team sweeping the NYC Raider competition this past weekend.
The competition consisted of five events. It started with an Army physical fitness test. Then came the first aid and cross country rescue litter course, where the Raiders had to evaluate a dummy “casualty,” perform CPR and run through an obstacle course with a 45-pound stretcher to simulate transporting the injured to immediate care. The third event is the rope bridge, which has each member effectively cross the bridge to go to the other side. Next was land navigation, which required them to compete in a scavenger hunt through the woods, and lastly, a two-mile run.
They also took first place in the Commander’s Cup, held in Florida on March 24.
Gogarty said that all this publicity allows him to forget about recruiting, since the students flow into his office in droves.
The cadets are the backbone of the school, he said, and he makes sure everyone knows it by requiring them to wear their dress uniforms to school every Wednesday.
It is also clear that they are the big deal on campus before you even enter it.
Outside, they proudly hang a banner that displays their most recent award titles.
The lobby is also glittered with older trophies and photos of the teams, as well as mementos from their charitable events.
Gogarty and the other six retired service members who run the program with him also keep in touch with former students all over the country through social media websites.
He said that he personally talks to 550 graduates, some of whom did move on to attend West Point, but others who are highly accomplished in life in other ways.