Opportunities for inclusion, new perspectives

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Charles McDaniel
  • NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force, E-3A Component

GEILENKIRCHEN NATO AIR BASE, Germany (AFNS) -- You may not know where or when the next opportunity to make a positive impact in someone’s life will present itself, but when it does, be ready.

My wife, Deborah, and I have tried to involve our girls in the military experience as much as possible. They grew up around military events like senior noncommissioned officer in charge induction ceremonies, Airman Leadership School graduations and squadron changes of command.

They have seen the professionalism of our Airmen up-close and personal. So, it was no surprise when our oldest, Helen, decided to join the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. Neither was it a surprise when her sister, Marlee, told us she wanted to be like her sister and join as well.

Marlee talked excitedly about Helen and how, when wearing the uniform, she looked just like daddy. It occurred to Deborah and I that there may be an opportunity here; we discussed the idea and weren’t sure how getting her further involved in the program would work. We knew it would be great for Marlee, but we did not fully understand how her participation would impact the cadets already in the program – and that’s where it was left, initially.

You see, Marlee has Down Syndrome and has been looked at, even stared at, for being visibly different.

This is something we as a family have come to understand – Marlee doesn’t bat an eye, but it does frustrate us. We feel that she is like everyone else who has a life-long challenge placed on their shoulders. All we can do is to prepare her for the future, encourage her and tell her to never stop trying; but we don’t do this alone.

To our surprise, it was the two AFNORTH International School AF JROTC instructors retired Col. Raymond Robidoux and retired Senior Master Sgt. Dennis Parise who approached us and asked if Marlee could join the cadet corps. They explained how it could be an excellent opportunity for the cadets to learn about inclusion, see things from a different perspective and learn how to deal with challenges as a leader.

After some real soul searching, we decided to let her do it. Deep down we knew this was right for our family and trusted the JROTC leadership that it was also good for them. After receiving the school’s permission, we told Marlee and she was so excited.

In her mind, she was now going to be like her sister. I will never forget the look on her face when we told her, it truly was priceless!

Marlee shocked us by how serious she took to the uniform and doing activities with the cadets. Her involvement quickly turned into a family affair. We’ve worked with her on ironing her uniform, shining shoes and conduct basic “drill” movements in the living room. Deborah helps at home with her studies and chain of command memorization.

All of Marlee’s hard work paid off. She was selected to be a flag bearer with her sister for a school function, something we never imagined her doing.

We know Marlee will never serve in the military, but the life lessons she has learned and the comradery shared between cadets have done wonders for her. She has gained confidence and social skills that she might not have been exposed to if it was not for BOLD leaders taking that first step. Being a part of the JROTC has not only had a positive impact on Marlee, but it also has made a big impact on her fellow cadets.

“Even though Marlee has a condition, it doesn’t stop her from doing things she loves .… She taught me that even if there is an obstacle, you can surpass it as long as you have support from friends and family, and that you never give up.”
- AS-1, Cadet, Age 15

“I honestly really like how Marlee is in the corps, she participates in the required events like everyone else, and her performances are good. She always works hard at the practices and it seems like she is excited to take part in it. She is just as much a part of the corps as I am and I’m happy to continue to be a part of the same corps as her.”
- AS-1, Cadet, Age 14

“Working with Cadet McDaniel to accomplish our goals has given the members of our unit the opportunity to practice leadership to different personal backgrounds. Having Marlee on our team has given us valued experience through teaching her drill. The repetition is beneficial for all the cadets training her, and it also helps develop Marlee’s capabilities as a member of the unit. Marlee helps us develop our problem-solving skills by requiring us to think of new approaches for learning when the traditional ways of training are not effective. Observing the cadets working with her has taught me many skills I would not have learned had she not been given the opportunity to participate as a member of the unit.”
- AS-1, Cadet, Age 15

These are powerful words to us and for the parents of those cadets. All it took was BOLD leadership to ask the question, and to understand the impact and relevance of that action.

Not only did this have a profound impact on our family, it impacted other cadets who may now see the world through a different lens. An act that changes individuals’ view of each other and opens the eye to challenges some people face.

With everything Marlee does, we learn more about our little girl and ourselves. In my opinion, Air Force JROTC is an excellent platform to teach our youth life skills and prepares them to become productive citizens of this nation.

We thank Robidoux and Parise for taking the first step and for their continued quest to teach these young cadets everything they can about life. We also thank our eldest, Helen, who tirelessly helps with Marlee’s development, despite getting that teenage pushback often. Marlee would not be the kid she is today if it was not for her sister and the example she has set.

Deborah and I share our story with you because we witnessed first-hand the desire to teach youth the meaning of dignity and respect for others and the impact it can make.

The world and our lives are filled with many challenges, when the opportunity to include others and expand perspectives presents itself, take it.