Aiken High welcomed one of its own home Thursday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the school's NJROTC program.

Janie L. Mines, class of 1976, talked about her experiences as a cadet and her commander, Sgt. Charles Eugene Sides Jr., during a Pass in Review ceremony in the James A. Taylor Students Activities Center.

After graduating from Aiken High, Mines was one of 81 women in the first class of female midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy and, in 1980, she was the first African American woman to graduate from the academy.

Mines, a daughter of the late Rev. William L. and Daisy S. Mines, joined the NJROTC at Aiken High four years before Congress authorized the admittance of women to its military service academies.

“One of the things it taught me is that we should take advantage of every opportunity that is put forth to us as positive in our lives because we never know what the future is going to hold,” Mines said after the ceremony. “I never knew I would have the opportunity to be in the first class of women to attend the Naval Academy, and if I had not taken advantage of the wonderful opportunities – the discipline, the education that was available to me here – that never would have happened.”

Mines said the Naval Academy was not ready for women in 1976 when she entered.

“I literally had to fight my way into the building,” she said. “If I had not already known how to march, already had the discipline, already understood something about the Navy, I would have been at a disadvantage because they made it hard for us.”

Mines wrote a book about her experience at the Naval Academy, “No Coincidences: Reflections of the First Black Female Graduate of the United States Naval Academy.”

“I talk a lot about Aiken in every chapter,” said Mines, who now lives in Fort Mill. “There's a chapter specifically about the NJROTC and the foundation – the moral foundation, the Christian foundation – and the discipline that I got here in Aiken.”

Mines said the foundation that NJROTC provides is "something that you won't get any place else."

“I was able to take advantage of the program to my benefit, and I pray that these young people do the same,” she said. “I am so excited. Aiken High School continues to be an outstanding educational institution. The cadets are wonderful. There are so many more than when I was at the school. I am just proud of the accomplishments of the school and of the corps of cadets. I feel honored to be here.”

NJROTC instructor 1st Sgt. Harry Johnson, U.S. Marine Corps, said he feels fortunate to be part of “a long lineage, a long heritage” of NJROTC at Aiken High School. Johnson, who graduated from Strom Thurmond High School in Edgefield County, has been an NJROTC instructor at Aiken High five years, teaching with Lt. Timothy Marinelli, U.S. Navy.

“We really have some great kids in our community, and sometimes, all they need is an opportunity, a little structure,” Johnson said. “Just give them a chance, and they'll surprise you. I see that every day in the program. I'm out of the military, but I get to impact the future of America, really, through these kids because that's what is about: these kids.”

Johnson said 129 cadets are in Aiken High's NJROTC program, the second oldest in South Carolina. More than 5,000 cadets have been through the program, which started in 1969.

The 50th anniversary celebration also included an Area Manager Inspection, or AMI, by Navy officers; an exhibition drill demonstration; a Pass in Review; and, like all good birthday celebrations, a cake. Brig. Gen. Brad Owens, a native of North Augusta and the director of the Joint Staff of the South Carolina National Guard, also spoke.

Battalion Commander Christian Anderson, a senior, oversaw the ceremony.

“To see it all come together is truly amazing, truly inspiring. I really do love it,” said Anderson, who plans to major in sociology at USC Beaufort next fall and wants to go into federal law enforcement. “I'm very proud of the cadets, the battalion staff and all the veterans who came out.”

​Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.