When Brittany DeHart joined the South Aiken High School Naval Junior ROTC unit last August, she was looking for a family environment.

She found that and something unexpected – a family of sisters, too. The entire unit participated in a Pass-in-Review exercise for parents and friends Thursday.

It might surprise some people, but 38 percent of 173 cadets at South Aiken are female. The number climbs to 42 percent of Aiken High’s 180-member ROTC program and around 50 percent of Silver Bluff’s program.

Several of Laughlin’s female cadets have earned the national Legion of Valor award – most recently given to Supply Officer Grace Thompson last fall. She’s one of just 11 high school winners throughout the U.S. this year.

Maddy Velie served as commanding officer and won the Legion of Valor as well in 2009. Kaitlyn Henderson had both honors a few years before that and graduated from the Naval Academy last year. In 2004, Kristin Gore also served as the CO and won the Legion of Valor award. After graduating from North Carolina State with honors, she went on to Columbia University for graduate degrees.

Laughlin and Silver Bluff commander Ron Freeman had a unique opportunity for the last two days that was requested by Area 6 Commander Gart Jones. Laughlin did the inspection and spoke at Silver Bluff’s formal exercise Wednesday. Freeman then returned the favor Thursday – “the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do that in 18 years at Silver Bluff,” he said.

When Freeman arrived at the high school nearly two decades ago, Silver Bluff had about 8 to 10 percent young women with the ROTC unit.

“Everybody viewed ROTC as more of a male-type program,” he said. “But they began to understand it’s a citizenship development program. It gives males and females the opportunity to learn so much as they prepare to go into the real world.”

Thompson can say that for sure. Her older brother Matthew would tell her how much fun he was having with South Aiken’s ROTC program. He also pointed out Grace could get the chance to have her college tuition paid.

“I’m going to Auburn on a nursing scholarship and I plan to go into the Navy,” Thompson said. “I’m glad to see this shift with more women in ROTC units. Women are just as capable of doing something with the military.”

Two other seniors – Platoon Commander Sarah Johnson and CyberPatriot commander Sarah Henagan – have also found the ROTC program invaluable.

“We were in middle school, and some of the cadets came over,” Johnson said. “They were doing a lot of fancy drills and looking cool. It was something I really wanted to do.”

During her freshman year, Velie was the CO and the executive officer was Jessica Campbell. Both were huge influences, Johnson said. She wanted to be like them one day and was later thrilled to earn the opportunity to wear the Navy’s service dress blues.

As an eighth-grader, Henagan’s good friend was Brianna Snelling, Kaitlyn Henderson’s younger sister and a cadet freshman.

“She always talked about how great Kaitlynn was and how helpful she was to everyone,” said Henagan. “I felt this was the kind of thing for me.”

Johnson hopes to go to the The Citadel and would love the chance to get a Naval Academy appointment. She couldn’t have dreamed of such possibilities without ROTC.

Henagan feels the same way. Her selection as the CyperPatriot commander still astonishes her. The ROTC cadets on the team must destroy viruses on multiple computers at the same time to advance in a national competition.

That appointment has given Henagan the goal of pursuing a career in cybersecurity.

“I actually feel I’m good at something,” she said.

At Aiken High, Commander Negron selected Kiersten Wright as the CO for 2011-12 – calling her one of the best student commanders he’s ever worked with during his career in this role.

“We have a good balance with the males and females,” Negron said. “The females pay more attention to detail, and as far as the military aspect goes, there’s no difference between the males and females. My view is the females are more compassionate, and they also tend to work a lot harder.”