“Left. Hey … as you were. Come back around. Folks, you’ve got to know your left from your right. Raise your right hand. Hold it up. Keep it up. Left face!”
Darrell Hood, Lt. Cmdr., USN (Ret), director of Peninsula schools’ new NJROTC/NNDCC program, ran cadets through drills on Monday in the parking lot behind Peninsula High School’s stadium, adding the right-hand prompt to sharpen the group’s turns.
“Hey, folks, when you’re at attention your feet are at a 45-degree angle, your heels are in a line. Your thumbs are along the seams of your trousers. Your head’s up and erect, your eyes are straight forward. It’s a thousand-yard stare,” Hood instructed. “Have some pride about you. I told you you’re different. You look different. You walk differently. You talk differently. You are different.”
Pride, discipline, leadership, service. The qualities students develop in the NJROTC/NNDCC program will serve them regardless of career goals, Hood said.
Darrell Hood, Lt. Cdr., USN (Ret), conducts drills with cadets in Peninsula School District’s NJROTC/NNDCC program on Monday at Peninsula High School. Hood, with a background in aviation operations and security, leads the program, which is new to the district this year. Christina T Henry / Gig Harbor Now
“I want our kids to leave this program and be able to survive and thrive in any environment, in any location,” he said.
Hood spent 30 years in the military and 10 working for the federal government. His expertise is in air traffic control, air operations and airfield management. He served as the FAA’s air traffic control representative to homeland security and law enforcement, and was special assistant to the Iraqi Ministry of Transportation and the U.S. Embassy transportation attaché.
Hood was a teacher in the NJROTC program in Shelton whose company last year was the regional drill competition champion. When the position in Gig Harbor opened up, he got the chance to start a program from the ground up, along with a shorter drive to work.
“It was a blessing to be given this chance to do this and not have to commute an hour one way,” Hood said.
Peninsula students follow the curriculum of the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC). The NNDCC in the name stands for Navy National Defense Cadet Corps, a program the Navy makes available to qualifying secondary schools that is modeled on the NJROTC program. The biggest difference is NNDCC is primarily funded by host schools.
Roughly halfway into its first year, the NJROTC/NNDCC program is going strong with 88 cadets from Gig Harbor High School and Peninsula High School, where the program is based. The program is open to all ninth- through 12th-grade students within school district boundaries, including homeschooled students (the minimum age is 14). Hood is looking forward to seeing the company grow.
Cadets in Peninsula School District’s NJROTC/NNDCC program stand in formation on Monday at Peninsula High School. The program, which is new to the district this year, has 88 students participating. Christina T Henry / Gig Harbor Now
Erin O’Neill, the district’s executive director of College, Career and Life Readiness, said when she arrived in 2016 she saw NJROTC as a unique opportunity for students to gain “21st Century power skills.” Being relatively new to the district, she doesn’t know why Peninsula hasn’t had an NJROTC program before.
“I was involved in the ROTC in the district in Iowa that I came from, and when I arrived in this area, I saw the number of families that were from the military,” O’Neill said. “I saw the programming that we had, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for our students to also have that opportunity.”
The Navy’s wait list to establish a new NJROTC program is years long. Forming an NNDCC program, with the district picking up most of the costs, was a way for Peninsula students to gain access to NJROTC programing.
As Peninsula’s program grows, the goal is it will gain full NJROTC funding. Having an NNDCC program will give the district an advantage when the Navy opens up applications to accept additional NJROTC units in this region.
The popularity of Peninsula’s program is also a factor in the district’s favor since the minimum sustained enrollment to become an NJROTC company is 100, along with other criteria.
For now, said O’Neill, Peninsula’s cadet development program, except for the source of funding, is de facto NJROTC.
“Everything else is the same, the curriculum, the drills. They can participate in the competitions,” O’Neill said.
Both NJROTC and NNDCC aim to promote patriotism among cadets and to help them become informed and responsible citizens. Students in the program develop personal honor, self-reliance, individual discipline and leadership, according to the Naval Service Training Command.
Senior Dominic Costanti jumped at the chance to join the program.
“Oh man, I was excited,” he said. “The military environment is always something that I’ve wanted to be a part of, and when I heard there was a JROTC (sic) coming to my school this year, I was like, Dude, I’m getting into that class quick.”
Costanti says he’s learned much from the NJROTC curriculum, which includes diverse subjects such as Naval History, Seamanship, Nautical Astronomy, Electronics and Oceanography.
He appreciates the team-building that happens when cadets drill or work on physical conditioning together. When one of their members falls behind … “We’re always here for him,” Costanti said. “You know, we’re always like, we’ll do whatever we need to help you, like, we’re here for you. And, again, that’s why we’re here, like, a team-based effort, you know? So, if somebody’s struggling with something, we’re always here to help them and, you know, help them move along.”
“That’s what I’m trying to build here,” Hood said. “You know, this group of individuals, Gig Harbor, Peninsula high school’s probably one of the biggest rivalries around here. But when they come through that door, there is no rivalry. This is a family of cadets in this program.”
Costanti, whose peers chose him as their commanding officer earlier this year, also has some thoughts on leadership.
“I think that you can’t become a good leader unless you’re a good follower first,” he said.
Students drill both unarmed and armed, the latter using “demilitarized weapons” that have been filled with lead, their firing trigger pins removed and unable to fire.
Peninsula doesn’t yet have a marksmanship program, but plans are in the works to start one soon.
A cadet in Peninsula School District’s NJROTC/NNDCC program is photographed on picture day, Monday, at Peninsula High School. Christina T Henry / Gig Harbor Now
“Our program practices will take place on campus, as it is a sanctioned sporting event under strict supervision,” Hood said. “This is the same as many other NJROTC programs across the nation.”
The district is looking for an instructor and considering two potential locations at Peninsula High School, O’Neill said: the NJROTC classroom itself, formerly an automotive shop, or an area that has been used for wrestling above the small gym in another building. Students would use air rifles with pellets for ammunition.
Echoing Hood, O’Neill addressed the issue of weapons on school property.
“Our district policy and even state law that prohibits firearms on campus has an exception for these kinds of programs specifically,” she said. “We’re going to be meticulous about safety and notifications on when it occurs.”
Cadets get to show their stuff at regional competitions and beyond. Peninsula cadets this year have taken part in competitions at Snohomish, where they placed first in physical fitness, and recently in Everett, where they placed third in physical fitness and third in academics. They also had an individual first-place finish in academics by Cadet Johannas Darnell. They have two more drill competitions this year, and they hope to take part in an all-division event later in Marysville.
Darrell Hood, Lt. Cdr., USN (Ret), inspects cadets in Peninsula School District’s NJROTC/NNDCC program on Monday at Peninsula High School. Christina T Henry / Gig Harbor Now
Service is another hallmark of NJROTC, and Peninsula’s cadets have found numerous opportunities to give back to the community.
“We have gone out during Veterans Day, or we’ve presented colors at a few memorials,” Costanti said. “And for veterans, yes. And some funerals even. But sometimes it’s just going out and helping churches with Christmas or something like that, you know, and helping them get their gifts ready for the kids or for families.”
Costanti has his sights set on a career in the military — specifically the Air Force — but at Peninsula, at least for now, he’s the exception, not the rule.
NJROTC/NNDCC provides information on the military services as a possible career, but Hood says that’s not the end goal. Among current cadets in Peninsula School District, only about 10% have expressed a desire to enter the armed services.
“It’s open to everyone. It is not, absolutely is not a feeder program for the military,” Hood said. “Our foundation is military because of the discipline associated with military, but that’s it. … And I will tell you the same thing I tell our cadets, ‘If you don’t want to join the military, don’t join the military. I don’t want you to join because I want you to be in there, but because you want to be.”
Hood says his mission is clear, no matter where his cadets are bound in the future.
“I want them to be good leaders,” he said. “They go to college, they’re thriving because they show up on time. They’re putting forth the extra effort to do good. They go into corporate America, they’re showing up on time. They’re working hard. They know what it’s like to work with a team. They go out and pick up garbage, they’re thinking about being the best garbage man there is and having some pride about them. So, I tell everybody that it carries over to any job anywhere, any profession that you want.”
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