When local teens talk about hitting the beach this summer, images of carefree days splashing around at Fun-Plex may come to mind. Katie Glessman aims higher. The beach she’s hitting isn’t just any old Omaha beach, but the Omaha Beach…as in the one in France.
The Benson High School student, a member of the school’s vaunted JROTC program, will travel to Normandy with a cadre of Bunnies to represent America during ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
“To represent Benson, the state of Nebraska, and the military at the D-Day events is pretty special,” says Glessman, whose recently bestowed title of Battalion Commander will make her the ranking member of the school’s JROTC program when her senior year begins in August.
Glessman and her band of brothers (and sisters) will, among other duties, parade past a reviewing stand populated by President Barak Obama and the heads of state from England, France, Canada, and Germany. Pretty heady stuff, but the most emotional part of the journey, she says, will unfold in hushed tones in a different area of the famous battlefield.
“All those crosses,” says the soldier who will be confronted with row after row of them at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. “That’s what is most important to me about this trip. All of those little white crosses.”
Each state was invited to send its top JROTC unit to France, and it’s no surprise that the legendary program at Benson, where a full 12 percent of the student body suits up for drills, was selected.
“Our JROTC program is a living, breathing testament to the strong tradition of excellence at Benson High School,” says Principal Anita Harkins-Baldwin.
Over 99% of Benson JROTC cadets graduate, says First Sergeant (Ret.) Daniel Falcon. Omaha Public Schools’ four-year graduation rate in 2013 was a troubling 77.8 percent. Benson’s number was 73.6 percent.
“My thing is working with kids,” says Falcon, who served 24 years in the Army before beginning a 15-year affiliation with the Benson JROTC program. “We have saved a lot of young people from the street with JROTC. Our kids learn structure. They learn responsibility. They learn leadership. Iraq. Afghanistan. Germany. Korea. I’m proud that our cadets have gone on to defend their country all over the world.”
Unlike so many people her age, Glessman has a solid roadmap to a future, one that will be in service to the loftiest of patriotic ideals. She enlisted as a reservist less than a month after her 17th birthday last December. One week after her return from France, she’ll be off to basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In between, Glessman has her sights set on the application process for the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she hopes to study law.
The military covets recruits like Glessman, she of the seemingly cool, calm, and collected demeanor. So is there anything this kid can’t handle?
“All those planes!” says the young lady whose first-ever flight will be the one she boards to hop across the pond to France. “And then the return flight! And then the flight to basic training! Don’t know how that’s going to go for me. We’ll see!”