James Keefe and Brandon Besold will spend these next two weeks preparing themselves for the rigors of the U.S. Marine Corps boot camp on Parris Island, S.C.
The two graduates enlisted in the Marine Corps together on a buddy contract program and will ship out on June 18, they said.
Besold and Keefe came up together in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) program at Parkville High. While there, Besold rose to the rank of cadet captain and Keefe rose to cadet second lieutenant. Although they didn't meet until their sophomore year in the program, the pair have remarkably similar backgrounds and became fast friends.
The First Step
Both are from Parkville, both became Eagle Scouts during high school and both knew they wanted to join the JROTC program early on in life.
"My mother worked [at Parkville High School] so I learned about the JROTC program when I was about 7," Besold said. "I would see Captain [Michael] Long and the cadets in uniform and ask her about them. From that point, I knew I was going to join when I was in high school."
Besold explained that military service is something of a family tradition: "On my father’s side, there’s been Army—my grandfather was in Navy ... on my mom’s side, my grandfather was Air Force, my cousin was Air Force and my uncle is in the Air National Guard in Bagram. I'm sort of the black sheep of the family in that I didn’t go Air Force."
Keefe's decision to join the JROTC program and eventually to enlist was similar.
"Coming out of a private school, I knew I wanted to try something different," Keefe, a St. Michael's the Archangel alum, said. "I wanted to experience something new, I sort of got hooked on the Green Berets movie and I knew the military is what I'm looking at now."
"My family isn’t really as in the military [as Besold's]: my grandfather was in the Air Force so my mom is an air force brat and they moved around a lot. My father isn’t really a military guy. He’s had some trouble with it, [but] they both understand where I’m going," Keefe said.
Besold enlisted on June 1.
"When I started to decide what I really wanted to do after high school I thought about college and I definitely thought of the military; I was trying to decide which one felt like it would fit better," Besold said.
"You're unnerved [thinking about enlisting]; you'll be away from your family and friends in some place that you’re not used to. After you really think about it though, it would be kind of like going to college."
"For the past three years my goal had been the Naval Academy, I pushed myself and pushed myself," Keefe said. "I got the recommendation, but wasn't able to get in."
Keefe was, however, accepted to The Citadel. Unfortunately, he said, he was unable to receive the sort of financial aid he had hoped for.
"I'd been set to going into the military but going to college first," Keefe said. "But I'd have to pay $44,000 a year ... it made the best sense to come in to enlist.
"It came to the point where we set up a plan for me to reapply to the Academy once I get [enlisted]," Keefe said. "I'll start taking college courses [after boot camp] and I'll apply 'til they say stop or I see something better."
Friends and Family
Despite Keefe's hardship, both young men said the most difficult part of the process was explaining it to friends and family.
"Every time I talk about joining the Marines [I hear] 'that’s cool' and then I get the big question: 'Why?'," Besold said. "I think if you have to ask why, I can spend all day trying to explain it but you won’t understand.
"It’s just hard to understand and explain it to someone that hasn’t been in the same mindset. I have a lot of support in my family and my friends. I’ll have to write a lot of letters home whenever I can."
"Everyone knew both of us were going to go in at some point. The ones we can call our true friends already know what we think," he said. "They'll say 'I'd better get a letter from you when you’re out there,' but any person who hasn’t been in our shoes isn't going to understand what we think."
And talking to their parents about their decision to serve their country was more difficult still.
"It always comes down to that long talk with your parents, telling them 'this is what I’m doing,'" Besold said.
"Especially with our recruiters everyone is interconnected," Keefe said. "They tell everyone who they help bring into the Marine Corps, 'we’ll keep tabs on them.' It's not about oh 'I'm going to take your son away.' It's about making a tighter family bond while your son or daughter is out in a different country or even just state."
"I tell my mom 'you’re not losing a son to the marines, you’re gaining 86,000 more sons and daughters,'" Besold said.
'Courage, Honor, Integrity'
Staff Sergeant Jamaal Queen was the recruiter who brought the Parkville duo on board and he said that working with Besold and Keefe has been a privilege.
"They already have the intangibles: courage, honor and integrity," Queen said. "Those are the things the Marine Corps produces and looks for. They exemplify them in their community."
Besold and Keefe credit the JROTC program with helping them to develop those traits.
Both said they were mediocre students at best before they signed up for JROTC, but all that changed when they learned what it would take to rise through the ranks. They each said that the program taught them the discipline they needed to manage a hectic schedule.
"I can say my grades have dramatically improved: in middle school I was pulling C's and D's, just barely passing. Once I got into the program, I was like 'OK, time to actually buckle down and start doing schoolwork.' I've been pulling A’s B’s and C’s; without the program I don’t exactly know where I would have been on the academic side," Besold said.
"Going from a C, D, sometimes even E student at a private middle school I became really active in school; now I'm one of vice-presidents of my class. Without this program I wouldn’t have had the integrity or courage to attempt that."
Besold played lacrosse his senior year, while Keefe said he worked two jobs and had to balance that against school, student council and the track team.
"Without ROTC I don’t think I could have balanced student council, track and two jobs, still had time to hang out with friends or sit down and take a breather," Keefe said.
Both young men also found the time in their busy schedules to make Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America.
Besold, who came up in Troop 475, earned the rank through a service project at Hiss United Methodist Church where he cleaned all the stainless steel surfaces and floors in the kitchen and refinished cabinetry and a closet.
Keefe, a Troop 419 alum, became an Eagle after a service project where he led a team that worked to restore the Baltimore Bowmen Archery Club.
Leadership is another thing that Besold and Keefe, both 18, have in common—they are at the head of the JROTC program.
"It's definitely a different perspective, instead of being the one who's growing physically and mentally you get to watch and help other kids come up. It's actually really rewarding to see the cadets you instructed do really well for themselves," Besold said.
Keefe said that one cadet they instructed went from having failing grades to being on track to apply to West Point.
Just before graduation Besold and Keefe had a chance to meet with active duty Air Force Second Lieutenant Emily Ryals, who also graduated from Parkville at the head of her JROTC class.
Ryals, 22, who just recently graduated from the Air Force Academy, shared a word of advice with the two young men.
"Honestly, I’d probably say take everything out of this that you can. This JROTC program is why I’m where I am today. While you guys are about to graduate, make sure everyone below you understands that," Ryals said. "Make sure you know that, hold on to everything you’ve learned here."
Captain Michael Long, who has been Besold and Keefe's instructor for their 4 years at Parkville High is very proud of his students.
"They’re two different young men; Brandon came up as a cadet and became our commanding officer, has had good and bad times. He’s a go-getter, I’m very proud of him making Eagle scout as well as completing this program as a captain and teaching the younger cadets," Long said.
"James: he’s real gutsy, jumps up and takes charge. He's been a great inspiration as second lieutenant. He's worked hard to get there. What he's learned from scouting has helped him to become a better leader," Long said.
"Both will be good Marines."