US academy honours would-be soldier killed in school shooting

Mourners attend the funeral service for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Peter Wang in Coral Springs, Florida, on Feb 20, 2018.
Mourners attend the funeral service for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Peter Wang in Coral Springs, Florida, on Feb 20, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

CORAL SPRINGS, Florida (NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST) - Fifteen-year-old Peter Wang dreamed of attending the US Military Academy at West Point one day, but he never got the chance. He was shot down last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as he held open a door so others could escape.

As he was laid to rest on Tuesday (Feb 20), West Point issued his family a ceremonial letter of acceptance.

"One of USMA's priorities is to develop leaders of character who are committed to the values of duty, honour and country," the academy wrote on Twitter.

"Peter Wang's actions on February 14 are an example of those principles, and the academy honours his dream of being a West Point cadet."

The 17 people killed in the shooting rampage included three members of the school's popular Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corps(JROTC) : Wang, Martin Duque and Alaina Petty. Fellow students say the cadets acted valiantly, helping to usher others to safety.

All three have been posthumously awarded the Medal of Heroism by the Army.

Cadet Command spokesman Michael Maddox said that just 48 JROTC heroism medals have been awarded in the past 20 years.

Maddox said JROTC students who survived the shooting at Douglas High might also receive medals for the help they gave to others as the attack was underway; Zackary Walls and Colton Haab helped to build a makeshift shield out of sheets of Kevlar for students who fled to the JROTC classroom, and Jude Lenamon helped panicked students to safely and quickly leave campus after he recognised the sound of gunshots and realized that the incident was not a fire drill.

"Awards for other possible cadets are going through a review process," Maddox said.

The accused gunman, Nikolas Cruz, 19, had also been a JROTC cadet.

The corps is one of the high school's largest clubs, with nearly 300 students who take courses in subjects like military drill, leadership and shooting.

Their maroon polo shirts were a familiar sight around the school campus.

Cruz may have counted on that. The police say he was wearing his maroon polo shirt when he was arrested, after having slipped away unnoticed after the rampage.

"We all have those shirts," Angelyse Perez, 18, a senior in the corps, told The Washington Post.

"We're never wearing them again. We're going to destroy them all."

Other cadets credited their corps training with helping to minimise the carnage at the school.

But Cruz's ties to the corps - The Associated Press reported that he had honed his shooting skills on its marksmanship team - raised troubling questions.

The Pentagon spends US$370 million (S$489 million) a year on JROTC programmes at about 3,400 high schools across the country, hoping to foster the next generation of military leaders.

Some communities welcome JROTC, but in others, it meets resistance from parents and advocacy groups who say it promotes militarism among impressionable youths.

The programme has been criticised for focusing on poorer schools with larger minority populations, and for using scarce resources to steer students towards the military, rather than giving them skills for other careers.

The programme does not require students to commit to enlisting in the military, and its leaders say it instils discipline and integrity that can help students in any career.

Wang's funeral on Tuesday was attended by hundreds of people. He lay in an open coffin in the small chapel at Kraeer Funeral Home, dressed in a JROTC uniform like the one he wore the day he was killed, with the Medal for Heroism pinned to the chest.

A line of mourners, many of them in uniform, stretched out of the chapel.

Governor Rick Scott ordered the Florida National Guard to honour the three cadets.

Veterans from all over the country began a campaign to mail military patches to Wang's family. And those who knew him spoke in tribute.

"He was always looking to do things for others before himself," said a classmate, Logan De Lima, 13.

Petty, 14, whose funeral was Monday, saw the JROTC programme as a way to give back to the community, according to a statement from her family.

"She loved to serve," the statement said.

Cadets were also among the wounded in the attack at the school.

Samantha Fuentes, an 18-year-old senior, was shot in both legs and was left with a fragment lodged behind her right eye.

Fuentes said in an interview that she had known Cruz from the corps.

She and other students were sheltering in a classroom, she said, when gunfire burst through the narrow pane of glass next to the room's locked door. Two in the class were killed. When Cruz then looked in to see what he had wrought, she said, she recognised his face.

When the attack began, she said, the class had been discussing hate groups and the history of the Holocaust.