New commander takes NJROTC wheel
After retiring with the rank of commander after 28 years of service
in the U.S. Navy, including deployments to waters
of the Western Pacific, Africa, Mediterranean Sea, Arabian Gulf, Persian Gulf,
and Indian Ocean, Jeff Martin likes where he now calls home.
“I got the best job in
the world,” he said.
The 52-year-old native of Jacksonville, Arkansas, who has been
onboard five warships and deployed around the world, has moved more than 20
So he and wife Melanie, an operating
room nurse, and their two young children, a second grader and a kindergartner,
are delighted to have settled down in Port St. Joe to what Commander Martin
plans to be a long and fruitful career as senior naval science
instructor with Port St. Joe High School’s Department of Naval Science.
As the successor to Cmdr. Tony Almon, who retired in May
2020 after four years overseeing the high school’s Navy Jr. ROTC program, Martin
works closely with the department’s other naval science instructor and senior
enlisted reader, James Watkins, a retired master chief petty officer, who was a military working dog handler during his years in the Navy.
Watkins is proficient on drills, marksmanship, and the color
guard, while Martin’s specialty is leadership training, having wrapped up his distinguished
career as a surface warfare officer with a stint as associate professor of
naval science at the University of Illinois.
It was there he taught thousands of
ROTC students the fundamentals of leadership, overseeing a staff of both civilians
and officers. “There’s a lot of parallels,” he said.
During the six periods each day when the two men teach, they
handle academics, and then on Tuesday and Thursday it’s physical training, which
counts as a physical education elective. On Wednesday, when the cadets wear
their uniforms, there’s drill and color guards after school.
Funding for the program is a joint effort by the government,
which pays for half the salaries as well as all the uniforms and training
materials, with the rest covered by the Gulf County Schools.
It’s not all NJROTC for Martin, he also teaches an
introduction to personal finance course one day a week, mainly to sophomores. And Watkins, who helps with the basketball team, handles career
prep as well.
“As needed we will do things after school,” Martin said. There may be trips to such places as the museum at the Pensacola Naval Air
Station, or to tour a warship at the naval base in Jacksonville.
It might be gearing up for drill or marksmanship competitions
against other NJROTC units. “We also just started a drone program so we will compete
with them on drones,” he said.
Martin begins the year with three dozen cadets, a number allowed below the usual minimum of 100 because as a chartered
program, PSJHS needs only have at least 10 percent of its 340-members seventh to 12th
grade student body enrolled.
About one-third of the cadets are female, which is in line
with the percentage of active duty Navy who are female.
Data shows that among 583 NJROTC units in the country, and
the roughly 75,000 cadets who take part, a large slice of them will enter the
military, with a significant number of them either earning ROTC scholarships or
entering a service academy.
But with that in mind, Martin is keen to point out that
preparing young people for military careers is not the main point.
“I’m not a recruiting source, we’re here for citizenship development,”
It’s all about leading, training, developing and mentoring
young people, instilling in them honor, courage, commitment and other behavior characteristics
that will serve them in good stead as they embark on their chosen paths in
“We get really great support in the community,” said Martin.
When students become eligible to join as freshman, NJROTC is
competing against other electives, and Martin has made a point to recruit around
the high school for cadets, who may want to sign on beginning the next semester.
“Most are well-rounded, maybe not an athlete, but I do have
a volleyball player, I have cross country and track,” he said. “We would love
to have cheerleading and football and we would be flexible with schedules.
“I would like to build to 75 or 100, where we can compete
nationally,” Martin said. “It’s going to take time; we have to get our brand out
He knows his limitations, as a 52-year-old retired male, so
he relies on the example set by his crew of cadets, led by Commander Nico
“This is a young man who has the world by the tail,” said
Valenzuela, who started as a freshman, has risen in the
ranks, taking on leadership roles with NJROTC even as he been active with the Student
Government Association, the National Honor Society, Key Club, and band captain,
where he plays the drums.
“There’s a lot of personal development but also
responsibility-wise, we’re here to give people options,” he said. “I feel like I’ve
gotten that too. Character development, organization, are the main key points.”
Community service hours are stressed, serving as the color
guards for events throughout the county, or taking part in the Toys for Tots
annual Christmas drive. On Saturday, the cadets raised about $1,300 at a car
wash, accommodated by Advance Auto Parts, with lunch courtesy of McDonalds.
“There’s a military style of running it, which differs from
the other clubs,” said Valenzuela, and so under him are six department heads,
who include Timothy Zidik, chief petty officer; Emma Reese, executive officer; Morgan
Mills, operations officer; Raelynn Hardy, administrative officer; Lauren Jones,
public affairs officer; and Maelee Lewis, supply officer.
Valenzuela “can multitask, he can lead, and under his guidance
we had leadership training for all returning cadets, three days a week before
school. He designed it, created it and implemented it,” said Martin.
Among those who have benefitted from this training is Cadet
Lt. junior grade Lauren Jones, who was chosen to gain firsthand knowledge
on leadership development.
“We’re exposing them to give follow-ship, so you can develop
into a good leader,” Martin said.
Normally, Jones would have taken her training at a NJROTC
high school within the Florida, but this year, due to COVID, the course was
mainly online. The Navy has also just announced that the Aug. 28 event will
have to be modified, since the COVID delta variant has forced the cancellation
of all travel.