- Cleburne Independent School District
CHS NJROTC Cadet Awarded Meritorious Achievement Ribbon
Cleburne High School’s first year of implementation of the Navy National Defense Cadet Corps ended with a presentation of the highest honor for a one of its members.
During ceremonies, with unit members and family in attendance, Cadet Seaman Christian Whitehead stood at attention as the Meritorious Achievement Ribbon was pinned on his uniform by CHS Academic Assistant Principal Karen Holweg.
The presentation was very personal to Holweg, who describes Whitehead as an incredible young man--and a superhero. It was Whitehead who saved Holweg from two close encounters with snakes, including copperheads, during a wilderness skills student field trip at Lake Texoma. Whitehead’s quick response to a potentially dangerous situation led CHS Senior Naval Science Instructor GySgt. Raul Mendoza to submit the sophomore—and his actions—for the meritorious achievement recognition. The honor, which is awarded on a case-by-case basis at the Area level, is presented for sustained superior performance in a leadership position.
“Since the start of the school year, I have observed Cadet Whitehead’s dedication to ROTC,” Mendoza said. “Going through the process to submit Christian’s name for consideration for meritorious achievement, I learned I was not the only one who has seen him evolve as a leader among his peers, in his classes and as an individual.”
Social studies teacher Chris Poss, who had Whitehead in AP World History this year, is also the instructor of the wilderness skills class offered through the CHS Jacket Academy afterschool program. Poss’ witness statement was included in documentation submitted to the NJROTC Region 10 Area Manager, in seeking top honors for the Cleburne student.
“I have watched Christian at work in two very different classroom environments,” Poss said. “In JAWS--Jacket Academy Wilderness Skills--we discuss and learn a variety of tasks and abilities needed for outdoor activities—from knot tying and camp setup to plant and animal identification and ways to stay safe when you are out in nature.”
Poss said he first observed Whitehead putting into practice what he had learned in JAWS during a 4.5-mile backpacking hike in December.
“From the start of the hike, Christian stood out as a leader in consistently watching out for the good of the group,” he said. “He took it upon himself to walk with those needing some extra help and encouragement. The leadership qualities he demonstrated helped us in successfully completing the ruck as a team.”
It was during the final JAWS session of the year—an overnight trip to the Cross Timbers Trail at Lake Texoma in April—that Whitehead’s leadership came to the rescue.
“Even before the trip, I had seen Christian demonstrate leadership in his classes,” Holweg said. “His calm demeanor is a strong characteristic of his personality. On the first day of our hiking trip, he was right behind me on the trail. A green snake slithered in front of me, and I froze—from fear. Christian quietly spoke, ‘it can’t hurt you—just let it pass.’ He was right.”
Hiking out on the second day, Poss directed students and sponsors to pair up in twos, as the pace would be faster.
“I knew there could be the possibility of the group getting spread out and separated, because some would move quicker than others,” Poss said. “Cadet Whitehead chose to hike with Mrs. Holweg because of her encounter with a snake the night before. He knew how much that frightened her.”
As Whitehead and Holweg made their way along the trail, they walked up on a pair of copperheads blocking the path.
“Christian was in the lead,” Poss said. “He stopped Mrs. Holweg in her tracks, while simultaneously assessing the situation and eliminating the threat. He remained calm and displayed courage and leadership in a very challenging situation. His actions—and valor—undoubtedly diffused what could have been an extremely dangerous situation for him and Mrs. Holweg.”
Mendoza, a 20-year U.S. Marine veteran who was a member of ROTC in his high school days, believes Cadet Whitehead’s actions more than justify the recognition he has received.
“I’ve never seen the Meritorious Achievement Award presented,” he said. “To see our request for consideration of this honor be routed to the higher ups and approved in a short period of time reaffirms the level of integrity of his actions. They could have recommended a lower level of recognition for Cadet Whitehead—but they didn’t.”
“He’s just 16, and to be able to put himself in someone else’s shoes and to be there for them takes a special person,” Mendoza said. “It was a very selfless and thoughtful act. He took the lead, in looking out for others and choosing to run toward the fight. It’s like he thought, ‘this is my watch and we’re going to make it out of here okay.’”
Whitehead has grown in knowledge and character over the course of the year, according to his teachers, who await his next steps, as he moves into his junior year and a second season of NJROTC.
“Gunnery Sgt. Mendoza has done a spectacular job training his students in leadership,” Poss said. “He holds very high expectations for the cadets under him. Christian is literally not the same student he was at the beginning of the school year. He has grown to be a very astute young man who rarely needs redirection. As a participant in JAWS, he took on tasks I couldn’t have trusted to just anyone. He demonstrates leadership indicative of that found in very few places outside of the military.”
“A leader leads from a bunch of places—at the front, at the back of the pack—wherever they are needed,” Poss said. “Good leadership is being sure the people who are with you are taken care of. He has demonstrated a new level of leadership ability I didn’t see at the start of the school year—this is a new kid. I’m really proud of him.”
Mendoza is also pleased with the strides made by Whitehead, which has led to honors for himself, his unit, Cleburne High School and the Navy National Defense Cadet Corps.
“Cadet Whitehead has dedicated this whole school year to ROTC,” Mendoza said. “He has stepped out of his shyness and volunteered to take on responsibilities and duties. When I announce that I need squad leaders, he’s the one that comes. He is more confident in marching and drilling. What’s also impressive is he’s not afraid about getting in front of a crowd, knowing there’s always the possibility he could mess up or fail. That’s the story behind the honor he has received—and it’s just as big.”
Whitehead says the reality of the recognition is still soaking in. He believes joining NJROTC is a step in the right direction for what he hopes to achieve after high school.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around all this,” he said. “I thank God I did what should have been done. I joined ROTC because I figured it would help me later in life. I’ve been thinking about the military since middle school, joining the Army or Marines to become a medic. I would like to be a doctor. But right now, I’m leaning toward the military as my first career.”
Among family members in attendance at Cadet Whitehead’s recognition ceremony was his grandfather, Ricky Vassar, a U.S. Navy Veteran.
“Christian has been through a lot growing up,” his mother, Kassie Johnson said. “He has a heart to love and protect others. Proud is not a strong enough word to describe how I feel. I know he has a bright future ahead of him.”
For Mendoza, the opportunity to honor a student, and celebrate the achievements of his entire team in the launch of Navy Jr ROTC at Cleburne High School is worthy of a Bravo Zulu—well done.
“I’m so proud of what I’ve seen achieved in this first year—by these cadets,” he said. “We’ve discussed the creeds of the various military branches. The sacrifices symbolized by the Medal of Honor and by our nation’s veterans. We’ve talked about leadership and how important it is to help in the community. I feel it has sunk in and made an impact.”
“It’s not about me, me, me,” he said. “We have to help others. That’s what a leader does—take care of others. It all came together, here at the end of the year. It’s so great.”