Building Better People: Loudoun JROTC Stands Out

Building Better People: Loudoun JROTC Stands Out
Loudoun County High School senior Jackson Smith poses with his parents, Lisa and Mark.

When Jackson Smith applied for the National Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps Scholarship in late fall 2016, he had no idea he would become the first person in Loudoun to win this prestigious award. His is one of six scholarships provided by the Navy that fully pays tuition to any school the winner chooses.

“I was super nervous and super excited because this doesn’t happen very much at all,” Smith, a senior at Loudoun County High School, said.

Smith will start at Virginia Tech in the fall where he will serve in the Naval ROTC unit.

“All his dreams have come true except now they’re getting paid for,” Jackson’s mother, Lisa Smith said. “His goal was to graduate and be commissioned as an officer and go into the Navy, but now it’s made it that much more exciting.”

Smith may be the program’s largest beneficiary, but he is far from alone. The Naval Junior ROTC (NJROTC) program draws nearly 200 students countywide — and turns away dozens more every year. As the county plans to expand the program, current NJROTC members couldn’t speak more highly of where it is now.

“If there was a fee, we’d pay for it. It’s that great,” Lisa Smith said. “It’s just a really cool, wholesome experience.”

The first JROTC Unit in Loudoun

JROTC units can be sponsored by any branch of the military. That branch that sponsors reimburses a portion of instructor salaries; pays for uniforms; provides the accredited curriculum that includes four years of Naval Science, an electronic delivery system, and supporting text books and materials; reimburses some equipment, uniform alterations and maintenance, and orientation events; and provides instructor certification and training.

JROTC is an elective course unlike most others. About 60 percent of class time is devoted to traditional classroom instruction and 40 percent is spent mastering leadership and followership skills, including instruction and practice in uniform wear and personnel inspections, drill, and physical training.

Established in 2009, County’s NJROTC unit became the first and so far only JROTC unit to serve Loudoun County. The program began under former County principal Bill Oblas. NJROTC Commander Jeremy Gillespie said Oblas was inspired when he saw a JROTC unit present the flag at a football game in a surrounding county. After talking to students, Oblas decided he wanted to bring a JROTC unit to County.

Commander Jeremy Gillespie.

Initially, the county was looking to bring an Army or Air Force JROTC unit, but eventually applied to all the services. The school rose through the Navy’s waitlist with some help from then Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who had previously served as Secretary of the Navy. Oblas pitched why he thought Loudoun needed an ROTC unit. Warner used his connections with the Navy to move County up the waitlist.

Before establishing a new unit, the Navy, like any other service branch, first looks at whether it has the budget to expand the program.

Oblas’ initiative coincided with the Navy discontinuing its sponsored NASCAR team. After examining the payoff, Navy officials realized they were spending around $15,000 for every person that just expressed interest in maybe joining the Navy.

By discontinuing the NASCAR team, the Navy now had money to invest in JROTC. That year, the Navy established 18 NJROTC units, including the unit at County. The Navy has not established any new units in Virginia since that time.

The Navy has 583 NJROTC units across the country, 32 of which are in Virginia. There are currently 200 schools on the waitlist for a NJROTC unit. The Air Force has 878, the Marine Corps has 259 and Army has around 1722 JROTC units across the country.

Gillespie also happened to retire from the Navy in time to start for establishment of the program. Looking for his next career, he settled on teaching, inspired by his mother and past teachers who had served as mentors for him. Gillespie originally planned to teach middle school students, but he became aware of the ROTC position and said he felt it was perfect.

“We were very fortunate that principal Oblas was pushing the application in a time the Navy was looking to expand in this particular area. But it took a lot,” Gillespie said.

After seeing how successful and in demand the NJROTC program in County was, LCPS staff renewed applications for Army and Air Force units a few years ago, Gillepsie said. Loudoun is still on the waitlist for a unit.

A day in the life of NJROTC

Smith leaves his house every day at 6:15 a.m. to get to County for drill team practice, nearly three hours before other students. After school, he stays an extra hour and a half for another team practice

NJROTC has six extracurricular teams: orienteering, physical fitness (PT), academic, drill, color guard and marksmanship. Depending on which team a student picks determines with a student is getting up early for before-school practice, NJROTC Master Chief Deanna Foust said.

Loudoun County High School senior Megan Baughman (left) and freshman Madison Nuckolls pose in their uniforms. Photo/Georgia Nuckolls.

Unlike most electives, NJROTC requires significant time out of school. Teams are the core of the program, Foust said, and have morning and/or afternoon practices as well as occasional weekend competitions. Students are also expected to complete community service hours.

“I think a lot of people, although in years past it’s been getting better, thought that they were going to come in and get yelled at and do push ups all day long and hoorah and gung-ho military,” Foust said. “That’s not what we are. We are a program that teaches citizenship and character building.”

Many of the team activities build good character and discipline, Foust said. An example is the drill team which trains in competitive marching. Within the drill team is color guard, which presents the flag at football games, baseball games, and other formal school events and, the exhibition teams which is competes with and without arms.

The orienteering team is like the Amazing Race without the money, prizes and drama, Foust said. Students are given a map and a compass with certain spots marked on the map that students have to find in a specific order. Students have to run the course in under two hours. This year, freshman Garrett Batt ran the course in 22 minutes, just two minutes shy of the record.

The marksmanship team practices shooting air rifles in the school’s Annex building.

Unlike Virginia High School League athletic teams, JROTC teams train and compete year-round, Foust said. Student compete with other teams across the country. Smith said he’s competed with the drill and PT teams in California, Florida and Hawaii. Not only are students traveling, but they’re making a name for themselves in competitions. Smith recently returned from a national drill competition in Daytona, Florida, where the County team won second place.

“Teams are a really big part of ROTC because that’s where a lot of memories are made,” Smith said.

Students earn ribbons and badges to wear on their uniforms based on competitions, community and unit service hours, academics and rank. Senior Megan Baughman said wearing her uniform and showing her accomplishments through badges and ribbons is one of her favorite aspects of NJROTC. Every badge has to be earned, she said, so it represents all the hard work that students put into the program.

Cadets wear their uniforms at least once a week for class meetings and Thursdays and Fridays are devoted to fitness training and drills.

Just like any elective other elective, students in NJROTC take Naval Science courses. County offers four years of Naval Science.

The curriculum throughout the four years includes topics such as career planning, leadership, maritime history, fitness and first aid, and military, international and admiralty law.

In order to return for subsequent years, students have to meet certain requirements. Students have to participate in a team, earn a team ribbon, complete 20 hours of community service. Only a handful of students will not be returning next year, Foust said.

Commander Jeremy Gillespie presents awards to NJROTC students at a ceremony May 10. Photo/Georgia Nuckolls.

Some fourth-year students, like Baughman, can also serve as mentors to first-year students and lead classes.

“There are certain things that make you go outside your comfort zone and break you out of your shell,” Baughman said. “Being in a leadership role helped me establish my confidence.”

Students who want to transfer to join NJROTC have to apply for the program and come to the school for an interview. Some students come as far as Lovettsville. Foust said NJROTC staff interviewed 40 students and accepted 25 to transfer to County for the next year. Since County is overcrowded, it restricts the amount of students coming from other schools they can take, she said.

“Having 40 interviews and only being able to get 25, it’s tough,” Foust said. “There are some incredible kids in this county and it’s hard to tell someone, ‘You’re great but others were greater.’ I wish we could really expand the program.”

Some students like freshman Garrett Batt join because they’re interested in a career in the military. Batt hopes to go to West Point Military Academy and his dream of leadership and service pushed him to achieve the highest GPA of his Naval Science class: a 4.1. Other students like freshman Madison Nuckolls joined to gain leadership experience and be part of something bigger than herself.

“I would always see these people who are proud of wearing this uniform and I would see them feeling like they have something to commit too,” Nuckolls said.

Freshman Garrett Batt (center) poses with his family.

Regardless of their reason for joining, students bond in NJROTC and quickly become family, Smith said. Students bond through team activities, training, competitions and field trips. Not only does NJROTC unlock opportunities for travel, but it also allows students to make a name for themselves and the unit.

As students advance in academics, team training and competitions, they grow in rank. Whatever rank they graduate the program goes with them if they continue in a collegiate ROTC program or go straight to the military.

Students receive awards during the last quarter of the school year, where they are recognized for their distinction within their units, teams and in academics and service. Gillespie said students consistently push themselves to work harder and inspire each other because of the high standard NJROTC students are held to. This in turn attracts other students to the program.

“I think that part of the problem is that we have kind of dumbed down what we do, playing to the stereotype that people have about youth rather than responding to what students want and what they’re capable of,” Gillespie said. “I find, that the higher you set the bar, the more surprised you are that the students can rise up and meet it and the better it gets.”

Room to grow

Now in its eighth year of operation, the NJROTC program continues growing strong. This year, the unit was recognized nationally, as a Distinguished Unit, the second highest possible distinction.

“We’ve still got topping to grow and we can still get better, but it’s nice to get recognition for that because we don’t chase the award. We don’t really think about it as the year goes along,” Gillespie said. “You try to do the right things for the right reasons and you kind of just see how it falls out at the end. I think it validates the fact that the kids are working pretty hard and doing good things.”

While change is coming to the unit, Gillespie doesn’t anticipate it negatively affecting students. He is finishing up the school year and then retiring from County, but feels he is leaving the program in the capable hands of Foust and Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Serrano.

“I kind of feel like they don’t need me here anymore so it’s kind of time to move on, let someone else come in and take the program even further,” Gillespie said.

After a 28 year career with the Navy and nearly a decade teaching, Foust will stay with the unit through the 2017-18 program and then she also plans to retire. Like Gillespie, she also knows the program will not miss a beat.

Trophies and awards displayed at the NJROTC Annex at Loudoun County High School.

“Whether I’ve known you for five years or five minutes, there’s an automatic connection between military members,” Foust said. “We’re able to establish connections really quickly because basically in battle, if you just showed up, you have to have my back and I have to trust that you have my back. We have that same relationship here.”

With the program having to turn away more students every year, Gillespie and Foust would like to see it expanded with a second unit. With the Academies of Loudoun set to open fall 2018, this may become a possibility.

Because of budget constraints, services are not looking to expand the JROTC program in Northern Virginia. However, branches are more willing to work with schools to establish National Defense Cadet Corps (NDCC) units. NDCC units work exactly like JROTC units — with the same extra-curricular teams, classroom curriculum, leadership opportunities and military service sponsorship — but are paid for by school systems instead of by the sponsoring service branch.

With the Academy of Science program, currently housed in Dominion High School, moving to the Academies of Loudoun, that space will be vacant. LCPS staff is recommending the Loudoun County School Board authorize that space for an NDCC unit to serve eastern Loudoun, leaving the County JROTC program to serve western Loudoun.

Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said he was interested in opening a second unit to better serve the student need and to better compare with surrounding counties. Fairfax County has eight JROTC units, five Army, one Air Force, one Navy and one Marine Corps unit. Some board members also suggested finding a way to provide transportation for special permission students.

The board will vote on what to do with the soon-to-be vacant space in Dominion at its June 13 meeting.

Gillespie supports LCPS providing transportation for these students instead of leaving it to individual families, because it makes the program more accessible to students whose families may not have a second car or whose parents’ work schedules do not allow for them to provide transportation. He hopes LCPS finds a way to serve all students interested in JROTC.

“Gunny says it best. He says, ‘Our mission is to build better people today so that they can go and build a better world for the rest of us tomorrow,'” Gillespie said. “It sounds like a bumper sticker kind of thing but it really is true.”

Madison Nuckolls who is quoted in this story is related to the Tribune’s HR Director and Business Manager, Georgia Nuckolls.