By: Kailanianna Ablog
I was proud to walk around in uniform. The faint thud of my shoes on the hallway tile, the gentle squeeze of a belt around my waist and the jingle of medals on my chest – reminders that, despite having no prior “military-esque” training before joining the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), I deserved success.
It was the first month of my freshman year of high school when I felt the call to join JROTC. My main reason for signing up was my family. I have multiple family members that have served or are currently serving in the U.S. military; many went into the Army, one in the Coast Guard, and two were in the Marines. My parents never served but growing up around soldiers and officers inspired me to learn more about the basics of what they do. A small part of me also wanted to explore future career options; the military was one of them. For a Pacific Islander, I learned that the military is one of the few options you have to gain social mobility. If not the military, it was through higher education.
JROTC influenced the first three years of my secondary education journey. My high school would dismiss us early on JROTC days, Wednesdays for my program, which meant that I sacrificed hangout time with my friends.
Despite my initial chagrin, I loved JROTC. My ambitious nature relished the challenge and I enjoyed the opportunity to better hone my leadership skills. I was even awarded a medal at the end of my first year in the program from the “Daughters of the American Revolution” for patriotism and military and academic achievement. If I hadn’t quit in junior year due to personal reasons unrelated to the program, I would have stayed committed through my senior year.
With mostly positive interactions with JROTC and the military through my family, I continued viewing the military in a positive light and felt accomplished to have left JROTC with the rank of “captain” and title of (former) company commander of an all-female company. When I enrolled in my first Ethnic Studies class at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, however, I learned something else about the military – its role in nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Nuclear bombs dropped on the Marshall Islands left the Marshallese genetically scarred decades after testing. Children were born without bones – “jellyfish babies.” Once fertile soil was contaminated by the fallout, causing the Marshallese to lose not only their health, but also the health of their land. My knowledge of what had occurred was expanded by the documentary “Nuclear Savage,” a film that was assigned in another Ethnic Studies/Women’s Studies course I took in my final semester of undergraduate work. After viewing the film, I learned that people my family know continue to be affected by the consequences of nuclear testing, which includes battling various types of cancer.
At first, I was uncomfortable learning about this part of history; I was never taught about this in grade or high school, but I was aware of the health issues affecting Pacific Islanders due to my experience visiting referral homes with my family on O’ahu.
After contemplating for a time, I realized that my discomfort was the result of not wanting my view of the military to change, especially after it being strictly positive for many years. Additionally, I did not want my perception of what my family does to change; even if they had not been the ones to do it, my family members are connected to the body of power that allowed nuclear testing.
I am still grateful for my experiences as a JROTC cadet. I appreciate what I learned and love my family for what they do. But I also must be aware of and accept that not everyone has had positive interactions with the military. While I have been privileged to learn about violence in a classroom setting, others cannot say the same and I acknowledge that fact.
I am still learning to process and unpack a side of history I was not taught, which shows a lot about education’s power in allowing students access to “non-mainstream” perspectives of history. Especially in this time of social activism, it is vital to (at least) listen and acknowledge different aspects of a topic, as well as confront any internalized biases or views based on what was taught or your personal experiences.
This is what learning is. It is uncomfortable and can be painful. But in the end, what matters most is what you choose to do with that you are presented with and how your actions as a result can affect yourself and those around you.