JROTC students visit Tacoma, show their skills

No problem.

Tacoma School District security guards seemed unperturbed Saturday as a few hundred students armed with rifles walked the halls of Mount Tahoma High School.

The rifles weren’t loaded, most of the students weren’t from Mount Tahoma, and this was the day of the Junior ROTC Northwest Drill and Rifle Conference Championships, wherein 850 students from 30 schools in Washington and Oregon competed in events including physical fitness, marksmanship, color guard, and unarmed and armed drill.

Hence those rifles.

The 21 members of the armed drill team from Graham-Kapowsin High School — favored to win their division — spent the lunch hour preparing in a classroom, this after a brief practice outside in the rain.

The armed drill competition would include three elements: an inspection; a regulation drill featuring required elements; and finally an exhibition offering a creative series of moves, steps, turns and the spinning and tossing of weapons.

Graham-Kapowsin fielded some 45 students at Saturday’s competition.

This is the 10th year for Michael Meray as the senior Army instructor with the school’s Junior ROTC program.

“I couldn’t be more proud of these young men and women,” he said. “To do what they do is pretty amazing.”

This would be the day he hoped to punch the ticket on his team’s final vindication. For 36 consecutive competitions, the Graham-Kapowsin team had fallen to the team from Kentwood High School. So far this year, Meray said, his team had beaten Kentwood three times.

And these were the regional finals.

Alexander Teston, a junior, is the “armed drill commander” of Eagle Battalion at Graham-Kapowsin.

“We take anybody, no matter their size or stature,” he said. “They can be part of our family.”

“We have to work as a team,” said junior Chase Berg.

“It’s definitely a team sport,” said Teston.

Each school day, the team assembles at 6 a.m. for practice, said Berg.

“This is like the state championships,” said Meray.

“We’ve been to Louisville, Kentucky, for the nationals,” said Teston. “And to Oak Harbor, and Los Angeles for the regional competition.”

The team has appeared at the Auburn Veterans Day Parade for eight consecutive years.

Not all participants in the JROTC program go on to enter the military, but if they spend at least three years in uniform, they are likely to receive a one-grade bump in promotion once they take their oath.

“We learn how to overcome obstacles,” said Berg.

“And how to lead a group,” said senior Michael Anderson.

“How to read a map,” said senior Austin Jasa.

“It all started last year,” said Teston. “We were fifth in regionals. I wanted to win. It’s been a lot of teamwork.”

“Today means that past three years,” said Berg.

Meray outlined the program for the afternoon event, which would include some members tossing their rifles into the air and into the hands of teammates.

“We’ll be taking a risk,” he said.

That Springfield 1903 Daisy drill rifle weighs 8.5 pounds, purchased for competition with help from a National Rifle Association grant.

“You can’t believe how parents support these cadets,” said Meray.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ron Baynes organized Saturday’s gathering. He’s the senior Army instructor with the Mount Tahoma JROTC.

“It takes a lot of self-discipline. It raises their self-esteem,” he said. “It’s a pleasure dealing with these young men and women. This becomes like a fabric for them. It’s one big family.”

Like the slow drip of a faulty faucet, the countdown to the inspection proceeds.

“These guys are going to try and get inside your head. Don’t let them!” said Cadet Maj. Shane Jones before the inspection began.

And when it did begin, the drill team had formed into ranks in the Mount Tahoma music room. Members stood at the position known as “inspection arms” as the judges — in this case from local college ROTC programs — inspected uniforms and shot questions as they slid from cadet to cadet.

“Who is the secretary of State?” “Who is chief of staff of the Army?” “What is the serial number of your rifle?”

“It’s everything. It’s the Super Bowl. We fought our way to get here,” said Teston once the inspection concluded, as the team marched to a hallway outside the main gymnasium to await the compulsory and creative drill competitions.

Sophomore Crystal Boyd, who competes in the unarmed drill and physical fitness sections, talked about how fellow Graham-Kapowsin students view JROTC drill.

“We try to tell them about it, but they don’t really get to see us perform,” she said. “We put our awards up, but people don’t seem to recognize us. We do it because we love what we do.”

“ROTC is like a family,” said junior Chenda White.

The hallway grows quiet as the Kentwood team gets set to enter the gym.

Teston speaks.

“I need you guys to be perfect,” he said. “Remember everything. Your rifle angles are of the utmost importance. I want you to enjoy this. I want this to be one of your best memories.”

“I think it’s really good for him,” said Marietes Jasa, Austin’s mom, sitting in the bleachers, waiting as the competition is about to begin.

“It’s been good for discipline, and a sense of teamwork,” she said.

The team marched into the gym, their shoes reflecting the overhead lights like shiny black mirrors. They marched and turned with synchronized precision. eyes front, spines straight. They tossed their 8.5-pound Daisies into the air, spinning, hands sure. As Teston barked commands, they obeyed by turning on their toes and heels, stopping, stomping, never smiling, presenting their rifles at a variety of positions and ending in a tableau that resembled a memorial to fallen warriors.

The results of the armed inspection and drill competition were tabulated late Saturday.

As it turned out, Vancouver’s Prairie High School won.

Graham-Kapowsin took third with 1,111.94 points — 2.09 points behind Kentwood.