Students grabbed non-functioning parade rifles and paired up. Facing each other, the more experienced student in each pair walked the other through a military drill.

It’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps class Thursday at the Boonslick Technical Education Center. First-year cadets are learning the rifle drill before they show it to their instructor, Maj. Dennis Meyer. On an average week, the class will do marching drills on Monday, physical training on Friday, and classroom instruction on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, said Meyer, one of the two JROTC instructors at the center.

Despite the military drills and uniforms cadets wear on Wednesdays and in color guards in parades and ceremonies around town, it’s not a military recruitment program. The class teaches leadership and soft skills, like public speaking and taking directions, that are important in any job. Meyer lets the cadets lead the class themselves as much as possible.

Cadets with more experience teach the younger cadets. The experienced cadets walked the newer cadets through each step Thursday in the rifle drill. The experienced students occasionally rotated, and Meyer mostly watched, stepping in only when he saw something the cadets missed.

“Everybody is going to look for something different,” Meyer said.

Meyer served in logistics in the Army and the Air Force. Before he retired in 2016, he thought about becoming an instructor. He was in JROTC when he was in high school, and saw teaching as a way to continue serving after retirement, he said. He was an instructor in Clinton for a year, and came to Boonville last year.

JROTC students don’t have an obligation to join the armed forces, Meyer said. Recruiters from different branches have spoken to the class, but there’s no pressure to enlist, junior Eric Bundy said.

Bundy, who is in his third year in the program and will be one of the first to complete four full years, joined partly to see if the military would be a good option for him, he said. Meyer and SFC Todd Straw have helped him decide the Marines would be the best branch for him, he said.

Bundy said the program benefits students regardless of their career field.

“It’s more about developing skills that are necessary in the real world,” he said.

Public speaking is a major part of the class. Students take turns giving a news, weather and sports report in front of the class, lead the pledge of allegiance and take attendance. Gabriel Bullard, a senior who plans to enlist in the Air Force, said it’s given him more confidence. Bundy said he’s seen Bullard become more outspoken.

Freshman cadet Alon McComb said it’s helped him speak in front of groups. He wants to be a singer, so he thinks the practice will be helpful.

Service and leadership are central to the class, too. Students are required to develop a service learning project to help the community and develop leadership skills. Projects could include picking up trash, Bundy said. Last year, the cadets organized a food drive for the food bank, he said.

They also continuously work to improve the JROTC program itself. Last year, the cadets worked on a system to try to improve fitness by allowing cadets to personally track their exercise goals, which helped with small improvements, Bullard and Bundy said.

The curriculum is developed by the Army, and includes a lot of military-specific instruction. McComb said he’s had to study for the class a lot more than he expected to pass tests on military acronyms and formations. But the class also teaches soft skills like communicating professionally and resolving conflicts, senior Taylor Concannon said.

Cadets who enlist will start at an advanced rank, depending on how much time they spent in the program, Straw said. Bundy and Bullard said they plan to enlist, and a student who graduated last year enlisted in the Army, said Meyer. Three students joined the Missouri National Guard, including Concannon.

Concannon switched around her schedule when the program started in the middle of her freshman year with 28 cadets. She’s now one of 40 in the program. She joined the National Guard after thinking about how she could serve her country and how she was going to pay for college. Concannon plans to study wildlife biology and join an ROTC program. She wants to work in conservation after serving, she said.

“I didn’t really think I wanted to be in the military at all,” Concannon said. “But I just fell into it and realized the military is for me.”

Because it’s so new, the BTEC’s program is unique from more established JROTC programs, Concannon said. It’s smaller than a lot of other programs, and the students have played a big role in getting it set up.

“It’s very nice being a part of the accomplishments that, when (McComb) becomes a senior and I’ve left, will still be in place,” she said.

bcrowley@gatehousemedia.com