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East Union JROTC is all about building character

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East Union JROTC is all about building character

East Union High School JROTC Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Kaitlyn Benetti and her executive officer cadet Major Marlene Rodriguez stand near an active inspection of fellow cadets being conducted by...


POSTED March 24, 2012 1:33 a.m.

The Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) at East Union High School has reached the gold standard of proficiency under the leadership of drill instructor/teacher First Sergeant Karl Knudsen (ret.) over the past 16 years.

“It’s all about building character and instilling leadership,” the instructor said of the JRORTC.

Knutsen retired from the Army in 1995 stationed in Oakmogee, Oklahoma, as a regular Army sergeant. Hw e was affiliated with the National Guard as an advisor with five other sergeants and two officers. 

Having been an engineer in the military he was looking for a position in construction and even considered being a truck driver or a prison guard in California. But in a subsequent debriefing session the idea of going into the high school JROTC program got his attention.    Knutsen said he didn’t think he could afford the cost of living to return to California where his mother lived in Merced and a brother was in Elk Grove.  Fifteen resumes were sent out in the mail to schools in New York, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma with none going to California.

An unexpected phone call reached him from a woman at the Manteca Unified School District, saying she heard he was looking for a job teaching a JROTC class – with an opening in Manteca.

Knutsen sold his house and packed up his furnishings and headed for the West Coast.  He lived with his brother for three months after going for an interview, having met administrator Rick Wohle.

East Union Principal Linda Frost called him, saying “I’m interested in having you for our JROTC instructor – would you like to have the job?”

Knutsen said he rushed to Manteca and signed the paper work – it’s his 16th year this year.

The Army instructor demonstrated a unique pride when he introduced two cadets who have been in his program for the past four years:  Cadet Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Kaitlyn Benedetti and Major Marlene Rodriguez, the colonel’s executive officer.

“Marlene lost her mom when she was just turning 10 and her sister was in my program.  I came to their home and shared my concern and deepest sympathies becoming something of a surrogate uncle to her,” Knutsen said.

He added that when she got to high school she went to him and said she was going to be in JROTC with him as her instructor.

“She has been with me ever since and Kaitlyn and I have known each other from Calvary Community Church where I was a puppeteer for some five years.  She was so young she thought the puppets were real,” he chuckled.

Kaitlyn joined the JROTC program and worked her way up to Battalion Commander.  She admitted this week to her instructor that it was a goal she had set in her freshman year.

“Being with teen-agers five days a week – I love my work.  I love what I do.  I have a passion and my wife is thrilled I have this passion.  Six years ago we got the gold star and last year we confirmed the gold star,” he said.

The sergeant said he gets his highest award in his job when he witnesses the accomplishments of his students in character building, community service and seeing their self achievements.

“I think accomplishment for me is when I escort the ladies down from the graduation platform and seeing the girls and boys that were in our program graduate.  That’s a high standard for the DSAI and for myself.  I could care less if they go into the military, but I do care they are walking away with stronger tools to be better models in our society,” Knutsen stressed.

In those 16 years some 2,000 students have gone through Knutsen’s program.  He said he sees a lot of them on Facebook and they do come back, often in uniform.  He chuckled when he noted that some of them stand at “parade rest” with their arms behind their backs as they talk to him.

East Union is the only JROTC school in the region with an obstacle course that serves as a draw to attend the Manteca competitions.  It was the Marine Reserves at Sharpe Depot that put in the fence for the course, dug the holes for the telephone poles and who have served as a resource for the school’s unit.

The East Union cadets will attend their annual boot camp on March 28 with Franklin, Manteca High, Weston Ranch and several other schools for four days.  This Friday and Saturday 14 cadets headed for the Mud Run in Monterey Bay where they will compete in advanced obstacle courses.  The cost is $30 each that will go into a special foundation.


209 staff reporter

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