Surprise win for underdog ROTC

Members of 15-year unit at Annapolis High School are named the best in nation

June 01, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

The Annapolis High School cadets knew something was up Thursday when the head of the Navy's regional junior ROTC program showed up at their annual changeover ceremony. The students had hoped that they would win most outstanding unit out of the 58 schools in the area.

They had no idea they would take the top prize in the nation, besting more than 600 schools.

"It was just a complete surprise to all of us," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Shara Sites, her face still red from crying. "It's just all so overwhelming."

The parents, alumni and 91 students in the cafeteria at Annapolis High School erupted with screams and yells after the announcement was made.

"I was hyperventilating," said Sean Grammick, a junior who already had been bowled over by being named the unit's company commander for next year. "It's pretty crazy."

His mother, Linda Grammick, said the award has been her son's goal since he started the program in freshman year.

"He was hoping and praying he would get this," she said.

In the 15 years that Annapolis has had a program, this is the first time that the school has won regionally and nationally. "It's a double honor for us," said Cmdr. Royal Connell, who has run the program since its inception.

The honor is the most prestigious that the unit could have received, said Teresa Casey, National JROTC support, in a phone interview from headquarters in Pensacola, Fla. The award recognizes the best overall program among 12 criteria that include academics, athletics, air rifle competition and drill.

A panel chose Annapolis High's program from a list of 11 nominees - one from each region of the U.S. and Europe. Each region had to choose a school.

"It's a challenge for the reviewers to choose the best unit from the great units," Casey said.

Annapolis High School is part of Region 5, one of 58 units at schools in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, Spain and Italy. It is the only one in the region to get the top honor in at least 15 years. Patuxtent High School's JROTC program won the regional award in 2005 and 2006, but not the national honor.

Jim Offutt, president of the Mid-Atlantic region of the Navy League, presented the award. He said he learned Annapolis had won when it was announced at the league's board of directors meeting a little over a week ago. The announcement caused a stir among members from Texas, where units have taken the top honor for years.

"I think they snuck up on people," Offutt said. In fact, Annapolis came in 10th out of the 11 schools invited for the regional competition earlier this year. Connell said the national panel selected the Annapolis unit because it had the best overall program.

Annapolis High School has the only Navy JROTC program in Anne Arundel County. At least 35 of the students in the program commute to Annapolis from other high schools.

This year, Annapolis' JROTC cadets hosted and organized four athletic and academic competitions. They also contributed more than 3,000 hours of volunteer service to organizations ranging from the Red Cross to Toys for Tots. Students excelled in orientation - getting to know military history and technology - by visiting a number of military institutions, including the Washington Naval Yard, Antietam Battlefield, the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico and the naval base in Norfolk. Annapolis will be sending a junior to the national air rifle competition on June 25 in Iowa. The cadets are regularly requested as color guards for state and federal institutions, Casey said.

The Annapolis cadets have become so well respected in academics and athletics that the JROTC national headquarters sent the publishers of their new naval science textbook to photograph the students for the newest edition coming out this fall.

"They're that good," Casey said.

The U.S. Department of the Navy oversees the JROTC program, which is considered a course to help at-risk teenagers stay in school and become good citizens, Connell said. Although the military does not use JROTC as a recruiting tool, some students do choose to join an ROTC program when they graduate or pursue a degree at a military academy. This year, the school will place its 20th graduate from the JROTC program at the U.S. Naval Academy. Over the years, the program also has sent two students to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York and three students to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Connell, who graduated from the Naval Academy, took the job in 1993 after he retired from 23 years in the Navy. He said his biggest challenge over the years has been keeping his unit at 100 members, which is required to keep the program. Once they join, nearly 75 percent of the students stick with it.

"I'm still in shock," Connell said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I believe I would do this. I'm happy for the kids."

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