110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
By Jen Horton
posted May 23, 2013 - 8:12:41am
A few years before Chief Master Sgt. Gary Cornwell retired from the U.S. Air Force, he heard about Junior ROTC, an aerospace-science program taught at the high-school level.
"Leadership is never easy. No matter how it comes. I am astonished to find out that I was selected to lead such a fine group of young men and women. Group Commander for the 2013-2014 school year at DeLand High School AFJROTC FL-023 will be an amazing year! However, there is someone else who deserves more recognition than myself. Our Chief is retiring at the end of this school year. Chief Master Sgt. Gary Cornwell was, without a doubt, one of the most important people in many people's lives, including mine. Chief Master Sgt. Cornwell provided comfort, compassion, understanding, discipline, leadership, and so much more to thousands of cadets for years and years. He acted as a role model, father figure, mentor, teacher, and a comedian too. Lord, how he made us all laugh with his jokes and remarks. It was through his amazing attributes as a person that forged our Corps into exactly what it is today. Thank you, Chief."
— Cadet/Col. Gregg Drebenstedt, Group Commander
"While I haven't known Chief for nearly as long as he's been leading students at the high school, during the four years that I've been a part of ROTC he has had such a large impact on my life. He is always willing to give back to the community and to individuals, and we can never find a replacement for the head of our ROTC family. He is and always will be the best role model of integrity, leadership, service, humor, and compassion, and I could not imagine my high-school career without him in it."
— Cadet/Col. Erin Wagner, retired Miss DHS
"Without Chief, we wouldn't have as awesome of a unit. If you had problems outside of school, you could always go to Chief."
— DeLand High alumnus Nicholas Lankford
He thought that might be something he'd enjoy.
"I loved working with teenagers," Cornwell said. "I never thought it'd be 23 years."
Cornwell, known to cadets as "Chief," is retiring again. He served his country through active duty for 22 years, and through teaching the students at DeLand High School for 23 years.
After 45 years of wearing the U.S. Air Force uniform, Chief quipped, "It's time for a change of clothes."
Through the program, he's touched generations of DeLand residents, sometimes teaching the child of one of his earlier students.
Both Chief, and his colleague Col. James Pugh, make the DeLand High School Junior ROTC a place for young men and women to develop as citizens, to bond with each other and establish a close peer group that's based on a high moral code. The cadets serve the community together, have picnics together, and meet before and after school, and they're guided by their mentors.
Students describe Chief as a father figure, someone to whom they can take their problems and get guidance.
That, Chief said, is his favorite part.
"In one word: family," Cornwell said. "It's a family."
He is going to miss it.
Cornwell said he'll be spending some time on his boat once retired.
"It's been a pleasure and an honor to be a part of so many young people's lives and to see them through the years," he said.
His colleague, Pugh, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, said it had been an honor and privilege to serve with Cornwell.
"There's none finer," Pugh said. "He's a team player, a leader. He is of the highest integrity, compassionate and passionate about taking care of these kids. He's the real deal."
Pugh continued, "It's hard to describe the impact he's had on so many young men and women. He's going to be missed."
"We're building better citizens." — Chief Gary Cornwell
The DeLand High School Air Force Junior ROTC program is more than a military-based program. It's a service-based organization, and the cadets in the program are taught the nobility and achievement in giving selflessly to the community, the true meaning of service.
In the past school year, the DeLand High School Air Force Junior ROTC has
• Raised $10,000 for charity
• Logged in 4,000 hours of community service
• Partnered with and worked for 100 Deputies 100 Kids
• Placed flags on veterans' graves for Veterans Day and Memorial Day
• Marched in four parades
• Performed numerous opening flag ceremonies for local events
• Ensured a United States flag was properly displayed in every classroom at DeLand High School
• Performed flag-disposal ceremonies, properly putting to rest hundreds of American flags no longer serviceable
• Collected food and toys for Thanksgiving and Christmas drives. Of the drive, the ROTC unit has a very special sense of pride. "We say that we [ROTC] will collect more food and more toys than the entire student body," said Col. James Pugh, "And every year, we do."
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Read the print story, on the Memorial Day pages in the Beacon EXTRA! edition, inserted into the May 23-26 Weekend edition of The Beacon.
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