By Todd Martin

    Leaning into the burden placed in front of them, high school cadets worked together to build bridges and make connections, all the while building a team to tackle even greater, unknown challenges.

    A group of 150 emerging leaders from eight high schools labored this week on Fort Hood to complete the Junior ROTC Phantom Warrior Junior Cadet Leadership Challenge.

    Battalions from the four Killeen ISD high schools and Copperas Cove High School served as cadre hosts to peers from Waco, Tyler and Longview.

    They arrived Tuesday and checked into their North Fort Hood barracks, trained on a navigation course Wednesday and took on the Leadership Reaction Course Thursday. The training camp concluded Friday with a 55-foot descent down a rappel tower and a graduation ceremony.

    "It's cadet leadership challenge. We like to say if it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you," said retired Col. Donnie Anderson, senior JROTC instructor at Harker Heights High School.

    At the leadership course near Gun Club Road on Fort Hood Thursday, students worked in groups that mixed the different schools to surpass a series of obstacles in timed trials.

    Killeen High School sophomores Alexia Lam and Alejandra Gomez said the days of training were exciting and challenging.

    "It's not what I expected," Lam said. "It's really important to be confident and to build bonds and work together."

    "You don't know what to expect," said Gomez. "It's cool that we have to adapt to a new environment. We are seeing what we are capable of doing."

    On the final day of the challenge, some cadets overcame fear of heights and trusted their equipment and training to back into a 55-foot drop.

    "It's pretty exhilarating," said KHS junior Madeleine Jones. "I used to be scared of heights."

    "It's really scary up there," said KHS sophomore Taliyah Norman. "I had to be brave."

    "It's a great experience, nerve racking, but a confidence booster when you conquer your fears," said KHS senior Tierra Williams.

    Anderson praised the leadership of III Corps and Fort Hood for making training and dining areas available, as well as for providing soldiers to guide students. In fact, he said, the local schools' close relationship with the post allowed battalions to bring more cadets than the typical allotment.

    Harker Heights High School senior Maximo Lopez was serving Thursday as commander for his group according to a daily rotation of cadet duties.

    "It teaches us leadership and shows us a lot of Army life," he said of the training experience. "You can't rely on your parents anymore."

    Watching his team attempt to build a bridge to haul supplies and people across a water hazard, he pointed out that different cadets were laboring to work in concert. "Everyone has an opinion. We have to come together to solve the problem."

    The difficulty, said Lam and Gomez, was the combination of meeting the physical and intellectual challenges while hearing out different ideas and working as a unit within the time constraints.

    "It's been so much fun," Norman said Friday as the camp was winding down. "I enjoyed my time. We could actually meet cadets from other schools and it's not just a competition. It's a different environment."

    Killeen High sophomore Allen Cassell said he couldn't begin to list the many lessons of the past four days. "I've learned about respect for others, so many things," he said. "I definitely want to come back next year."

    The Junior ROTC curriculum is heavy on citizenship and service, Anderson said, but the leadership camp in the summer ramps up the challenge.

    "For the most part, these are top-tier cadets in their specific levels," he said. "They have the potential for increased responsibility. Here they get to hone their leadership abilities and work with others. They are also developing friendships and building bonds. Obviously, they are having fun."

    June 15, 2018

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