For nearly two decades, Lt. Col. Thomas Jahnke has stood before a classroom full of high school cadets and provided direction that would change their days, years even their lives. But that is about to end.


"It's time to move on," said the 64-year-old Apple Valley resident, who announced he will retire as commander of Sultana High School Air Force JROTC program. "One side says it's time to go. We're getting older, and it's time to do other things. The other side knows I'll miss the students."


Increased enrollment


But Jahnke is leaving at the top of his game. Enrollment in the school's JROTC program has increased by 40 percent to 187. And larger numbers mean more funding from the Air Force, which helps pay for travel expenses and other operational costs.


"That's very good for us," he said. "The more students we have the better we are. That's why it's so critical that we recruit."


Jahnke's goal is to enroll 15 percent of incoming freshmen.


"We have just over 600 ninth-graders at Sultana. If we had 90 join ROTC that would be incredible."


When Jahnke took over in 2004, the Sultana program had about 100 students and won a single distinguished unit award. Today, the program enrollment is nearing the 200 student mark and has won the coveted award, which is given by the Air Force to the top 10 percent of high school JROTC units, six years in a row.


"Hopefully we'll make it again this year," he added.


To help get more cadets, Jahnke and a small contingent will make their annual visit to Ranchero Middle School in March to touch base with like-minded eighth graders. And every December Jahnke sends out holiday greeting cards to parents of incoming freshmen.


First-year cadet


But not all who join Sultana's JROTC program are freshmen. Senior Luke Smith, a cadet staff sergeant, was a home-schooled student who found the program to be the most inviting part of his new public school experience earlier this school year.


"Basically when I first started I was very nervous," Smith said. "I didn't want to go to public school."


But his guidance counselor suggested the ROTC program.


"I said, 'OK, I'll give it a shot.' "


Immediately he experienced a sense of belonging when fellow Sultana student Brian Burris, a JROTC cadet major, shook his hand and said, "Welcome to the unit."


Now Smith is one of the program's biggest advocates and serves as a teacher's assistant for one of Jahnke's classes.


"It's one of the coolest classes," said Smith, who is heading toward a career in either writing or the military. "I just love it. I always wanted to be part of something and improve myself."


Substitute teaching


In Jahnke's case, old airmen never die, they just become substitute teachers.


"I'll still stay involved in the unit. I'll sub for classes," he said.


Teaching on a daily basis has meant a lot to Jahnke, who retired from the Air Force after 23 years of active duty. After service, he taught at Victor Valley High for seven years and California Charter Academy in Hesperia for another four. Jahnke holds two master's degrees.


"I'll miss the interaction with the students," Jahnke said. "They make you laugh. They make you cry sometimes. But it's been very rewarding."