ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – On Memorial Day, we honor fallen soldiers who gave everything to keep America free. This week at Hardin-Simmons University, the next generation of military personnel are preparing themselves to help protect those freedoms.

It was an overcast morning in the parking lot of the Skiles building on the HSU campus, but the sounds of precise marching and calls came from between the white parking stripes.

It takes time to learn the cadences and calls of military marching, but for the high schoolers in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), it has become their lifestyle. A mission or calling some might say, to serve, protect and honor America’s right to freedom.

“The military has always been a thing in my life. My dad was in the military, and even though I didn’t live with him, it set off that little spark,” Cadet Colonel Paul Nguyen said.

During the week Nguyen walks the hallways at Abilene High School (AHS), but during his extra curricular hours, he becomes the Corporal Cadet in Abilene High’s Junior ROTC program.

Nguyen said while his father’s military background played a role in him joining ROTC, it was his older brother’s challenge that inspired him to pursue a military lifestyle.

“I don’t want to be exactly like him, so I decided to want to commit to the army academy,” Nguyen said.

His brother was accepted into the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs last year, putting up an impressive academic resume to enlist.

Nguyen, though, said their sibling rivalry consists of the brains and the brawn. His older brother is the brains, and he declared himself the brawn – after working with the AHS football and power lifting teams.

In the HSU leadership program, however, Corporal Cadet Nguyen becomes a Colonel Cadet and steps into the classroom to further his education on how to become a quality military leader.

And while he leads at Abilene High, he becomes a student to graduates of a similar ROTC leadership program who moved onto the collegiate ROTC ranks, like University of North Texas junior, Christian Elle.

Elle volunteered as a Cadet Training Officer (CTO) for the week, as did many other college students who are spending their first weeks of summer vacation working with the high school ROTC cadets.

“Not only are the cadets learning from us, but we are learning from the cadets how to develop our leadership styles,” Elle said.

Elle is originally from Cameroon, a country in west-central Africa, and made her way to the United States as a young child. Now, an official citizen of the U.S., the 20-year old has found her way into the United States Air Force.

She said her parents both served in the military, but never forced her to join. However, she grew more and more interested as she saw the impact of airmen and wingmen in leadership roles and became inspired to join the military on her own power.

Now volunteering, Elle said she hopes to teach the young cadets to face and conquer uphill battles.

“Being an officer is not going to be easy,” Elle said. “You are going to be put in those situations where you don’t know what to do and no one to tell you how to do it.”

Helping volunteer alongside Elle is Abilene native, Cooper High School graduate and current Tarleton State University student, Jackie Barry, who returned to her backyard to help instruct the cadets attending.

Barry attended and graduated a similar ROTC leadership program in Abilene. Now, she wants to give back, even though prior to her junior year of high school she had no military experience.

She said no one in her family had military experience, aside from her great grandfather, but knew at an early age she wanted to serve in some capacity.

It was in third grade Barry realized she could do just that in the military, and now has aspirations of not only serving her country, but also teaching the skills needed to be successful in the armed forces.

“I want them to know and learn how to show off all of these leadership traits they learn, while growing and helping people before they can go off,” Barry said. “I want to use the hardships I’ve gone through and to let other people know that other people have been through that and that there’s always going to be someone there for them.”

She said in high school, she wanted to return to “be mean,” but learned going into the college ROTC that her mindset had to change. Barry said it wasn’t a matter of being mean and yelling, but rather intensifying her mannerism to better prepare herself and her cadets for obstacles faced.

Barry said she went into the college ROTC blind, not knowing what to expect, but learned quickly – the right way to respect those who went before her, those serving now, as well as those future cadets joining in the near future. A maturation process that she wears openly and proudly on her sleeves, and has been commended by her past instructors.

More than 500 high school ROTC cadets have joined the two programs at HSU this week; one for upper classmen and the other for underclassmen. They are learning how to become an effective military leader, honor guard duties, as well as training exercises both in the classroom and in the field. Their schedules begin roughly around 4:30 a.m., Barry said, and end around 10:30 p.m.

Each student will graduate from the program Saturday, June 4.