As the father of a high schooler stuck at home because of remote learning, Col. John Church, USMCR (Ret.), sees firsthand the emotional toll that being separated from peers can have on a teen.
That’s why he’s thrilled to offer some semblance of normalcy to a number of Marine Corps JROTC cadets at Bensalem High School.
Recently, with all of the district’s COVID-19 health and safety measures in place, Church and Master Sgt. Shawn Worthen, USMC (Ret.), resumed afternoon practices for the school’s competitive shooting team, which is comprised of a dozen JROTC cadets.
The program instills in the students maturity, discipline and rifle safety, and each year, they have the chance to show off their skills during an annual competition, for which they placed 15th out of more than 100 teams last year.
“As parents and educators, we’re glad that there’s something more normal they can be a part of,” said Church. “Being able to offer the shooting again is some sense of normalcy for the cadets. These students have either done it before and want to continue to do it, especially for the social interaction to see their friends. Or, they’re new students that have never done it before and they want to explore that opportunity and we’re really glad.”
Bensalem’s shooting team is in compliance with the nationwide Civilian Marksmanship Program, which requires every student who wishes to participate to score 100 percent on a shooting examination and take a safety pledge. The latter is recited in front of Church and/or Worthen.
“This is to instill in them, this has to be a safe environment,” said Church. “It’s a very deliberative process. It’s been around forever, and we are glad to implement it here where our students have been very successful.”
Cadets learn to use Avanti 887 and Crosman Challenger .177 caliber pellet rifles, which exhibit similar ballistic characteristics to a small bore .22 caliber rille, but are easier to handle and are much safer to use in a training or competitive environment.
The school cafeteria is utilized for practice from 2 to 4 p.m., with targets set up in accordance with the program’s safety standards. Mask-wearing and social distancing is enforced.
“We’ve worked very closely with the school leadership. They’ve been very supportive,” said Church. “No one else is in there. No one else is allowed in there at that time for obvious reasons.”
Church stressed that participation on the shooting team is completely optional for the cadets.
“A student can be a great cadet in the Marine Corps JROTC and if they don’t wish to be part of the shooting program, that’s perfectly fine with us,” he said. “We have students that absolutely love competitive shooting and are very, very good at it and we love coaching them. We have students that have never shot before competitively and want to try it, and we love coaching them as well. It’s exciting for us to help these young people hone their skills. But the most important thing without question is a safe environment for everybody. It’s a great way to talk about discipline, accountability, responsibility and safety.”
According to Church, shooting instruction for JROTCs dates to 1916, when the nation was on the verge of entering World War I.
“We as a nation, a little bit more than 100 years ago, looked inwardly and said, ‘We might need some young people to be more familiar with the military,’ ” he explained. “You can see from a historical perspective that great minds were anticipating terrible challenges ahead.”
Additionally, the Bensalem JROTC has deep roots as the only junior Marine Corps program in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Church reflected on past visits from alumni, who marveled at the fact that the JROTC is still going strong.
“It’s really nice when we have alumni validate. They come to us and say, ‘This program really helped me when I was here, I’m so glad that it’s still thriving.’ That makes us feel good about what we’re trying to do here,” said Church, who, along with Worthen, is relatively new to his Bensalem assignment. “It’s been very exciting for us because we’re learning every single day, much more than the cadets, truth be told.”
Currently, the shooting team is prepping for the upcoming “postal competition.”
“We compete against other schools, but we never see them. We mail our results to them, or they mail their results to us. Through an honor system we compare our targets against their targets, and then we determine who the winners are. So, we never come in contact with any other teams,” said Church. “What a lot of people don’t realize is, a shooting competition is probably the safest sport that a student can participate in.”
Cadets are always invited to give competitive shooting a shot. Church added that JROTC alumni are invited to donate to the program. These additional funds help provide more opportunities and experiences, such as field trips to landmarks like the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com