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JROTC instructor gives back through military and JROTC leadership service

JROTC instructor gives back through military and JROTC leadership service

Sgt. Joseph Clay works with JROTC students during drill practiceSergeant Joseph Clay, a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (JROTC) leadership instructor at Hamilton Middle School, has served both as a Marine and as an instructor and mentor to students in the district’s JROTC leadership program.

Clay moved to Wichita in the seventh grade from Missouri and began attending Wilbur Middle School where he was placed in the JROTC program.

“I got stuck in this leadership class and knew nothing about it,” Clay said. “I didn’t know why I had to wear a uniform or why it mattered to be a good citizen. But that class helped me find myself and my voice. In the leadership program, I saw something that I was good at and I had instructors that truly believed in me.The only family I had growing up was JROTC.”

Clay said he was transient and mostly homeless during his time in middle and high school.

“I can remember sleeping in the parking lot of Northwest High School several times because I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Clay said.

After he graduated from Northwest, he joined the Marines and was first deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, as combat replacement. He was deployed again to Ramadi, Iraq, as an infantry soldier with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.

“I was part of a quick reaction force and we were basically in every fight,” said Clay. “We hit 27 improvised explosive devices during my seven-month deployment.”

Clay says he suffered the loss of 16 of his Marine comrades while serving in Ramadi.

During his service, Clay suffered a back injury due to shrapnel and was discharged after four years. 

When he returned to Wichita, he earned a political science degree from Wichita State University and after college, he joined the AmeriCorp program and planned to work in disaster relief, but soon discovered that the greatest need the program had was in filling teacher vacancies.

“Through Americorp’s Teacher For America program, I was placed as a math teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a school in an old cold war bomb shelter,” said Clay. “I didn’t really have a lot of resources or supplies, but I knew that I was needed. It was a rough two years.”

After his time in Tulsa, Clay moved back to Wichita where he began serving as a math teacher at Southeast High School for four years from 2016-2020. For the past several years, he has worked as a leadership instructor at Hamilton Middle School.

Clay said his favorite thing about being a leadership instructor is introducing cadets to the program that helped him when he was a struggling teen.

“I can place these kids in challenges and situations that they’ve never been exposed to,” said Clay. “I know that my work can impact a student’s life. I know this because it happened to me.”

Clay continues to give back to veterans. He is a national training advisor and member of the board of directors of the national Warrior Battalion Charity which works to help reduce veteran suicide.