NJROTC Lets Student Shine

Baldwin and Richards at the Lincoln Memorial.

Isabel Hanewicz , Staff Writer

Robinson High School senior Keith Baldwin is full of stories.

Stories of his family who served in the military, from a grandfather who was a Marine in the Korean War, to his uncle who carried classified information in a backpack in Saudi Arabia.

Stories from the veterans he has met, tales of bravery, courage and grit in some of the worst wars in American history.

Stories of what it truly means to serve your country in the armed forces; experiences that one day, if he is lucky enough, he will be able to experience on his own.

Baldwin, due to graduate Monday, has a military background. On his mom’s side, the males served in the Air Force, and on his dad’s side, in the Navy or the Marine Corps.

At Robinson, he was a member of the Naval JROTC (NJROTC) program all four years. He served as the Commanding Officer his senior year, the highest position attainable.

“I was in charge of everyone, every event. Anything and everything that was going on in that unit was my job,” said Baldwin. “NJROTC has taught me a lot about leadership, honor, courage, and commitment. It teaches you how to be your absolute best, to [take] pride in your country and in what you do.”

As the leader, Baldwin was known by nearly every cadet in NJROTC.

Junior Ricky Warner entered NJROTC freshman year. Warner, who hopes to become a Platoon Commander next year, remembers Baldwin as an inspirational figure in the program.

“He likes to take command and he will lead us. He’s very passionate about NJROTC and it just seems to come easy to him,” said Warner. “I think he’s helped out by boosting up morale of the group. Everyone loves Keith.”

NJROTC Cmdr. Elliott Berman, the head of the NJROTC program at Robinson, has known Baldwin since he entered the program four years ago. Berman describes Baldwin as the ultimate “do-er” and “go getter.”

“He has lots of initiative and is always willing to take charge. He’s run [the program]. I always tell the kids, the new staff, it’s a good year if I can sit in my office all day and not have to get involved in planning,” he said. “He’s pretty much allowed me to do that. I think he’ll do good in whatever he ends up in, whether it is school or military.”

Less than a month before he was due to graduate, Baldwin found out he had been selected for the trip of a lifetime: be a “Guardian” for a WWII veteran and travel to Washington DC as part of the Honor Flights. The Honor Flights, a nonprofit organization, flies veterans out to DC and transports them to see the war memorials in their honor, all at no cost. Each veteran is assigned a Guardian to help push their wheelchairs and assist them.

Typically, Guardians are civilians who have applied to take part in the program, but Baldwin was one of four Hillsborough County students selected from JROTC programs- one for each branch of the military- to participate by the Hillsborough County Veterans Council and Berman.

“I was very nervous to meet these guys, as you are to meet anybody that’s a hero. These guys have given it all,” he said. “I was nervous but not nervous in a scared way, nervous excited.”

Baldwin was assigned to spend the 20 hour day with Navy veteran Edward Richards, who served in WWII on a Navy Destroyer. Richards, originally from Massachusetts, now lives in Clearwater.

“It’s a great experience for us, the guardians, because not only do you get to see all the memorials you get to meet the guy that was there,” said Baldwin. “You’re getting a lot more than you’re giving to these veterans. It’s unbelievable.”

The group met in the St. Pete/Clearwater Airport in the early morning, and flew on a private jet to DC. The group took the veterans, most who served in WWII or the Korean War, to the war memorials before flying back home later that night.

The first memorial the group visited was the Arlington National Cemetery.

“When you drive through the gates and everywhere you see tombstones it’s a whole other feeling, very humbling,” said Baldwin. “Just knowing all these lives were lost and the people who fought for our freedom, especially because some of the veterans fought along with these people.”

The Korean War Memorial, which depicts seventeen military figures in the forests of the Korea, was the memorial most significant to Baldwin because his grandfather fought in the Korean War.

“There’s this wall of remembrance [at the memorial]. As you look at the wall, it looks like a marble wall but as you can see real faces of people that fought in the Korean War, and at the end it says ‘Freedom is not Free,’” he said. “When I saw that, I started getting teary eyed myself. That was very big.”

For Richards and other veterans, the Korean War Memorial was touching as many of them lost friends in the war.

“When you looked at them, the Marines, Air Force, Navy, and asked them ‘What do you think about [the monument]?’ they’d just immediately come up with a story about a lot of their friends they lost here,” said Baldwin. “They felt the people that deserved to be there were the ones that didn’t make it because they gave it all. A lot of these guys didn’t feel like they should have been there. You could tell it was taking them back.”

On the flight back, the veterans received letters from school kids and volunteers to mimic the “role call” in the military. When they arrived at the airport, there were thousands of people waiting to give them a “Welcome Home”- something they never had when they returned from war.

“It was absolutely amazing getting to talk to these guys,” said Baldwin. “They went all out for the veterans. You have to give it all for those who gave it all for their country.”

Baldwin plans to follow in their footsteps. He has enlisted in the Navy and is due to ship out later this summer. Eventually, he hopes to have a twenty year career in the service.

For now, he is happy to get a chance to help his country.

“I believe it’s important to give back and serve, not necessarily serve as in the Marine Corps or the Navy or other military branches, but I do believe it’s important to give back,” he says. “Find a way. Whatever you do in life, at least you’re contributing.”