BUSHNELL — When Army Staff Sgt. Joseph P. "Jo Jo" Hart retired after 20 years' globetrotting service, he knew he wanted to return to his Sumter County roots.
What the 40-year old electronic device specialist did not see coming was a unique civilian teaching opportunity which leverages his military skills in leading a Navy program.
The National Naval Defense Cadet Corps is a congressionally authorized initiative that falls under the same umbrella as the services' Junior ROTC programs with two distinct differences: member high schools provide their own funding for staff and uniforms and the NNDCC's adult leaders are not required to be sailors.
Thus, the South Sumter High School Raiders went after one of their own in Hart, an Iraq and Afghanistan seasoned soldier (five combat tours total) who once wore his alma mater's red and black on the track, football field and in the band.
"Staff Sergeant Hart is one very organized instructor, but his biggest trait is that he is reliable," said sophomore Rachael Yacuzzo. "And he clearly wants to see us succeed."
Rachael, proud that "both my grandfathers are veterans," aspires to attend law school.
Her plans were typical of her fellow cadets' stated ambitions during a recent visit to South Sumter's friendly, picturesque campus in Bushnell. Several said they aimed to apply for Service Academy nominations. Careers in medicine and engineering were also popular choices.
Those responses would not surprise Rear Adm. David Steindel, the former Navy service training commander whose oft-stated "elevator speech" emphasized the cadet corps' purpose of "support(ing) student citizen development programs."
At South Sumter, Hart gets to the, well, heart of that theme by preaching, teaching and coaching an innovative curriculum that includes using Frisbees and tennis balls to (very actively!) teach the rudiments of Naval Air Defense.
And he regularly cites leaders from his own active duty time to punch home simple, poignant truths, especially a sampling from three particular Army senior NCOs:
"If you don't know what you are supposed to be doing, how will you know if you are doing it correctly?" 1st Sgt. Arthur Barlow
"Attack the problem, not the person," 1st Sgt. Anthony Scott
"We can all sing at the same time, but we can't all talk at the same time," Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Herndon
When Hart inherited the program with less than one week's notice on Aug. 6, he was very pleased to learn that the South Sumter High contingent reigns as state champions in orienteering.
Taxing both mentally and physically, "orienteering is a Swedish-invented running sport that combines land navigation with map and compass skills," explained senior Jonah Celenti.
Overall, Hart readily admits that "the experienced cadets are teaching me Naval traditions and language" and, when it comes to those new to the program, "we are learning together."
Still, the ol' sarge is way ahead of many salty sailors when it comes to taking charge of a classroom filled with busy, talkative teenagers: He can whistle a loud and clear "attention on deck" without a boatswain's pipe.