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Guam school honors longest-serving AFJROTC instructor with memorial service

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brian Bahret
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
More than 50 Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets from Guam's John F. Kennedy High School stood rigidly at attention in a military formation at their alma mater as Andersen's Honor Guard offered full military honors Oct. 4 during a memorial service for the Air Force's longest-serving JROTC instructor who died Sept. 20.

JFK high school held a memorial service for retired Col. Walter "Tony" Merritt who served as the school's AF JROTC director for 28 years before retiring in August.

"Colonel Merritt devoted over 63 years of uniformed service to his nation and his community," said Col. Richard Ragaller, the director of the Air Force's JROTC program. "After 35 years of military service, he then spent nearly 28 years positively impacting thousands of young lives as an AF JROTC instructor."

"He was married to the Air Force," said his wife of 27 years Ann Merritt. At age 17, the Smith Station, Ala., native enlisted into the Army Air Corps in 1943. He served as a B-24 tail-gunner during WWII until he earned his commission through the ROTC program in July 1948. Colonel Merritt retired as an intelligence officer in April 1979.

Shortly after his retirement, the Air Force called on the then 35-year veteran to serve once again- this time by teaching JROTC on Guam. "Although he never taught before he agreed to instruct temporarily until they find somebody," said Mrs. Merritt. "That was 28 years ago."

Since Aug. 18, 1980, Colonel Merritt has taught more than 8,000 students, all at JFK High School, with the tools to develop citizens of character dedicated to serving their nation and community.

"He worked very hard to build up the ROTC program," said Mrs. Merritt. "He has a lot of fond memories; a lot of the kids have really blossomed out from being in the program."

Pastor Thad Jones, a retired Air Force major who gave the eulogy at the memorial service, said, "It stands to reason that his post military time was spent preparing others to participate in a lifestyle that he esteemed so highly.

"Colonel Merritt decided to continue military service in a unique fashion that of giving others a foundation in preparation for serving as military members in the greatest military in the greatest country in the world," he said.

He added that as an instructor, the colonel served well by "providing an opportunity to others to see that there was more to life than just focusing inward, but also focusing their vision beyond the horizon."

Ray Yoshida, who as a student commanded JFK's 1997 JROTC cadets, said Colonel Merritt left an immeasurable impact in his life.

"I would say he was the greatest teacher I had been with; the greatest commander I was under," said Mr. Yoshida, who served in the Army after graduation before beginning career in Guam's Public School System. "He would not have to yell, he would not have to ask twice. Among us cadets, we always knew that colonel's instructions had a meaning to them."

Like his students, Colonel Merritt's peers admired his dedication and commitment.

"Tony was ... a man who put on the uniform of our country proudly and never took it off even after he retired," said Dr. Gayle Hendricks, former JFK principal, "Instead, he chose to continue to serve but in a different capacity as a JROTC instructor. The knowledge he imparted to his cadets have far reaching implications - he taught his students values, respect, citizenship and what he taught, he emulated."

As the Air Force's JROTC director, Colonel Ragaller saw firsthand how Colonel Merritt's quiet demeanor belied his intense dedication of service to others.

"When I had the honor of meeting him, I quickly realized I was in the presence of a true American hero," he said. "We should all try to live up to his legacy and dedicate ourselves to a cause bigger than ourselves. He will be sorely missed but never forgotten."

Guam Congressional Delegate Madeleine Z. Bordallo worked with Colonel Merritt in his capacity as AF JROTC director and in his additional role as Guam's liaison to the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. 

"Colonel Merritt was an institution as an Air Force Junior ROTC advisor at John F. Kennedy High School for many years," she said. "He molded minds and inspired many students to serve our country and he made a difference in many lives. We honor his lifetime of service to our country and his invaluable contributions to our island as a role model, a leader, and an educator."